â€śTwenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you
didnâ€™t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail
away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.â€ť - Mark Twain
Sitting on a red eye shoved between two burly fishermen, I remember thinking to myself, â€śam I going to make it backâ€¦alive?â€ť What started as a late night rash decision based on my desire to â€ślive life to the fullest,â€ť had congealed into a reality and a scary and literally foreign one at that. Costa Rica was the destination, saving sea turtles was the goal, or at least thatâ€™s what I told people when they asked why I was spending four weeks in a foreign country. Though sea turtles were a concern of mine, their conservation was just the veneer on the true reasons to my going.
The true reasons; I was desperate to get a taste of another world, I wanted to make friends out of total strangers, to force myself to break through language barriers, listen to peopleâ€™s goals and dreams, and maybe inadvertently, realize some of my own.
Costa Rica meaning the rich coast is a gorgeous, diverse country located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Filled with active volcanoes, vibrant Spanish culture, views to die for, and countless beach paradises, who wouldnâ€™t want to go? That was what I was thinking that fateful night when I placed a two hundred fifty dollar deposit, purchasing my spot working for two weeks in a village with the impressive population of forty and located a two hour drive from the nearest paved road.
The crowded bus from the city of Alajuela
to the tiny village of Gandoca
didnâ€™t do much to subside my fears.
Filled with locals and lacking air conditioning, I felt like I was in a foreign world. Not only that but I felt like I was intruding on another culture, and in a way I was. I was completely ignorant of their society, culture, and almost entirely their language. Now I know Iâ€™m making it sound like I went entirely unprepared, and that was not the case. I did my research, spent hours reading my Costa Rica guidebook, browsed travel websites, and had even taken Spanish for four years, yet even with all that preparation, I was nowhere near prepared for the real experience.
I urgently wanted to go around unnoticed, to spend my days of travel and volunteering in a camouflage-like state, and be able to observe and partake in their society without being identified as an â€śAmerican tourist.
â€ť Letâ€™s just say that with my features, (blonde hair, blue eyes,) that didnâ€™t work out for me. Not only was I unable to go unnoticed, but I also quickly came to the realization that I would be receiving a lot of unwanted and degrading attention, starting with catcalls, and going downhill from there. With a few aside, most 'Ticos' were respectful, kind and sincere. Enrique and Juan, two guys my new friend Kayla and I met one day, were two of the most interesting and genuine guys I have ever come across. They were kind, open and enthusiastic. Listening to them speak honestly and passionately about their lives, families, culture, and opinions about the changes Costa Rica is going through, was a truly amazing and eye opening experience.
Depending on what part of the country I was in, there were different general opinions towards Americans.
In largely tourism-based cities, foreigners were treated very much like business. The little time I spent in Manuel Antonio
, I felt like locals were just â€śputting up with meâ€ť because they figured I was one more, run of the mill tourist with deep pockets. In areas such as Gandoca, where â€śtypicalâ€ť tourism is not a major part of their economy, the locals were honest and genuine. You could feel the difference, and could tell that they were treating you with respect not because they were hoping to get something out of it, but because they wanted to. Though the opinions and treatment of foreigners changed drastically depending on where in the country I was, I did come across two interesting, uniform stereotypes of Americans.
The first was that Americans work too hard. Costa Rica, with the exception of San Jose
, runs on something called â€śTico time.â€ť Tico time basically means that everything happens when it happens. Similarly to their approach of time is that of work. Work happens when it happens and gets done eventually. To see Americans working set hours each day is unimaginable. The other common stereotype is that American society does not respect itâ€™s elderly. In Costa Rican culture, it is accustom for families, both immediate and extended to live together and care for each other. Houses generally hold multiple generations and house anywhere from five to twenty people.
Costa Ricans see and hear about adult homes in the United States, and feel it is a terrible form of disrespect. Attempting to observe American culture through the â€śeyesâ€ť of a Costa Rican really helped me to better identify with and understand Costa Rican culture.
The environment is Costa Ricaâ€™s biggest tourist draw. If not for the lush green rainforests, sandy beaches, and exotic wildlife, Costa Ricaâ€™s economy would dwindle. So as expected Costa Rica takes conservation of itâ€™s wildlife and natural wonders very seriously. Though they are working hard and making many improvements, they are nowhere near perfect. My volunteer program was based on environmental and wildlife conservation. Because of itâ€™s focus I was able to see and experience fist hand the governmentâ€™s successes as well as shortcomings in the areas of conservation.
When compared with other countries of Central America, Costa Rica is leading the way in conservation efforts, however they still have a ways to go. The government is corrupt and easily persuaded to â€ślook the other wayâ€ť when it comes to things like poaching and the use of harmful chemicals on crops. Perhaps the most critical example of poaching occurring in Costa Rica today is that of fining. Fining is the term used to describe the act of fishing for sharks, â€śharvestingâ€ť their fins, and throwing the live, finless shark overboard. The number of sharks off the coast of Costa Rica has decreased over eighty percent in the past ten years due to the increase demand of shark fins on the black market and in countries such as China. Another issue that the government fails to â€śnoticeâ€ť is the use of harmful chemicals such as DBCP on crops.
These chemicals that are used, seep into the soil when it rains, consequently contaminating water sources and in turn harming the environment, wildlife, and people of Costa Rica. Coral reefs have been devastated, and birth disorders and sterility in humans as well as wildlife have been linked to these chemicals. Corruption within the government as well as hidden agendas, make fighting theses issues very difficult. Though problems like this are prevalent, I have to give the citizens and government of Costa Rica credit. Like I said before, when compared to other nearby countries Costa Rica is leading the way in conservation efforts. With more education, and greater public involvement, I am sure that they will continue with their efforts and eventually take the necessary steps to protect what is not currently protected.
While I know that my time in Costa Rica was well spent in itâ€™s effect on me as a person, Iâ€™d like to think that my time also helped to make a positive difference in the larger scheme of things. Only a few years ago, Gandoca was a village where the economy was based on the poaching of sea turtles and the harvesting of their eggs. Today the economy is based and supported by the volunteers. The sea turtles draw the volunteers, the volunteers pay to live with the local host families, and therefore the locals do not need the income of the turtle eggs. It is a great conservational tourism system and one that should be used as a case study for other parts of the world where wildlife is being threatened due to poor economic conditions.
I also hope that while I was there, I helped in a small way to break the stigma associated with the term, â€śtourist.
â€ť So many times, people visit Costa Rica expecting life to be a party, having no interest in learning anything about Costa Ricaâ€™s rich and amazing culture. What is even worse is that many times they donâ€™t respect societyâ€™s standards and morals. They act in rude, disrespectful manors just because itâ€™s â€śtheir vacation,â€ť failing to realize that itâ€™s someone elseâ€™s life. I was very open and respectful to their ideas and cultural beliefs. I made it a point not to draw negative attention to myself. Iâ€™d like to think that I helped the citizens of Costa Rica realize that not all tourists are rude.
Though my decision to go abroad was not my most rational decision, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was placed out of my comfort zone and forced to interact with and experience another culture and society drastically different than any I had ever experienced before. I learned to trust my gut instincts and feelings both good and bad about people at all times. I learned that people love to talk about themselves to an open, non-condemning ear. I learned there are many issues facing the Costa Rican environment, most of which are economically stimulated and therefore very hard to fix. Subsequently, I realized that I am very interested in learning how to â€śfixâ€ť these issues in a non-detrimental way. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that language does not place barriers on communication, fear and unwillingness does. I am proud that I am able to say I took full advantage of my time in Costa Rica. I spent my time there living and learning, and because of it, today I am a better, more well rounded, more knowledgeable and more understanding person.
"A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.â€ť - Moslih Eddin Saadi
â€śTravel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on,
deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.â€ť - Miriam Beard