Grace Clarke - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation in Costa Rica
Earlier this year I found the courage to travel alone across the Atlantic to the beautiful Costa Rica. For me, such a trip was a gamble, as I would say I’m a bit of a home bird. However, looking back I realize it was one of the best experiences I have had in years and is now something I am eager to do again and again.
From the moment I signed up, it was clear that Projects Abroad worked hard on preparing me for my trip. I received lots of information and advice. My soon-to-be host family even got in touch. This put my parent’s minds at ease.
After goodbyes in Dublin I set out on my long journey, arriving in San Jose at 9pm. A lovely Projects Abroad coordinator and a very warm climate greeted me. Before long I was settled into my home with my host family, parents Karla and Walter and their two beautiful girls. I was in luck, as there happened to be two other volunteers, Lois and Clemence, staying there too. These girls soon became my travel companions and good friends. At first it felt so peculiar to be living with complete strangers but after a week my fears and anxieties were gone and Karla’s house felt like my own home. They really put so much effort into making us feel comfortable and welcome.
The Care placement
I had a wonderful time working at a day care center, which turned out to be a three-minute walk from my host family’s house! The children were aged between 6 months and seven years old, they were undeniably cute – all adorable and lively. Despite the 8am starts, I was always looking forward to work where giddy children instantly greeted me with big hugs. My jobs were simple but useful, such as helping with mealtimes, English classes, PE, playtime (of course), and arts and crafts. I would return home exhausted but content.
The staff were very sweet and were patient with my lack of good Spanish. Sometimes, the children would notice that I didn’t quite understand them and they definitely took advantage of it, but that made me laugh. On my last day the center threw me a little party, with a baked cake and lots of dancing and jumping around the place. It is one of my most memorable moments with the children. I was sad to have to say goodbye to them all.
The Spanish lessons
During my Care placement I was also squeezing in my Spanish lessons. Similar to the day-care, they were in walking distance. Every lesson I would look forward to the downhill stroll and the uphill hike back home, surprising my host family because I actually enjoyed the walk.
My energy for the upward journey was supplied by my lovely Spanish teacher who would send me on my way with biscuits. I had studied some Spanish in the past, and therefore our lessons were mainly conversation based, as I always struggled with this due to my shyness. Fabienne loved to talk (in Spanish of course) and I felt I learnt so much just by listening. She taught me a lot about Costa Rica and its culture too.
The lessons definitely came in handy when I was exploring on my days off. In some areas, English is very hard to come by, a good thing indeed when you’re trying to learn a different language! By the end of my stay it was clear how much I’d improved my Spanish in many aspects. This is of course with huge thanks to Fabienne, and indeed my wonderful host family, who were always so helpful and encouraging. In fact, most people you met were edging you on to give it your best go in Spanish.
There is no better way to learn a language then to completely immerse yourself in it, I just wish I had more time there to keep on improving! I did, however, leave Costa Rica feeling much more confident at speaking and I’m very eager to keep learning.
The Conservation placement
Barra Honda National Park was my last destination in Costa Rica. It was here that I had a very unique experience, as the staff were so eager to teach us all about nature and our surroundings. Scorpions, toads, iguanas, snakes, howler monkeys and bats! There was so much to see and so much to do. At Barra Honda you share your time with both workers and volunteers, and it really feels like one big family. I met volunteers who had spent months and months here, and after my mere 5 days I could see why.
My experience of Barra Honda was short but jam-packed. It was here that I got my first ever blisters on my hands, from digging and shoveling for the water-recycling project. Believe it or not this was actually so much fun. My favorite moment was when we were doing the bat survey (so cool) and suddenly there was thunder and lightning and heavy rain.
We all sprinted back to the camp and ended up soaked through. Another wonderful experience is visiting the caves. The guide turned the torches off leaving you sitting in pure silence and complete darkness. It was surreal. These activities aren’t even the half of it.
Another benefit of Barra Honda is the great food and fun with chef Mercil, who insisted I practiced my Spanish with her, yet playfully teased me when I made mistakes. She made my favorite Arroz con Camorones and we ate lots of fried platano – delicious. The food is something I still miss to this day. Overall, the conservation placement is something I would highly recommend.
My overall experience
These placements were incredibly interesting and worthwhile, and I left knowing that I’d learned a lot. I discovered my love of traveling, so I’m looking to plan more trips like this one. A great benefit of volunteering with Projects Abroad is that you are given the opportunity to explore the country in your spare time. You feel very safe knowing that there are always people who can help you out, and that you have a place to return home to.
It’s so hard to explain, but Costa Rica is so breath-taking. The country is beautiful and their culture is rich. The food is delicious, the music is wonderful and the people are so friendly. It is in Costa Rica where you learn of the ticos welcoming personalities and desire for everyone to be amigos. The beaches are divine and the mountains are spectacular.
There are volcanoes and waterfalls among other things. I found myself surfing (acquired a few bruises) and zip lining, both special experiences for me. It is so easy to make this trip personal and your own. My piece of advice would be to embrace everything. The opportunities for these kinds of experiences come rarely.