I said I would post in English, too, and I never did. So sorry. I’ve been in Costa Rica about 11 months now. (Ugh the guilt.) I don’t know where to start. I guess the beginning would be an idea. I’ve done and seen so much, I’m not sure I even remember everything.
I arrived on September the 3rd (I think) in San José. That’s the capital of Costa Rica and where I currently live. On the day after my arrival I met my future flatmates, my colleagues, my boss at work, my mentor and pretty much everyone working at the organization I’m volunteering for. Not over-whelming at all. What I’m doing is a one year volunteering programme for young people sponsored by the German government. Various German organisations involved in development cooperation send young Germans who have at least finished school (or uni or have learned a profession) to developing countries or countries of the Global South as we like to call them. The volunteers are carefully selected and prepared for their year abroad ( (at least I feel we were by my organization, Bread for the World (not to be confused with the American one by the same name)) and work with a local partner organization in the respective countries in mostly social and some political/cultural projects. Teaching kids and making flyers protesting human rights violations, that kind of thing. We don’t build schools or wells. That’s so 20th century. And we wouldn’t be so good at it, either. My partner organization is the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica, Iglesia Luterana Costarricense. It’s a very small church with strong ties to Germany and Sweden; they do their best with the resources they have. The ILCO currently hosts seven volunteers from Germany. I live with three of them in a house in San Sebastián, a part of San José. The front of our house is used by the church for mass or other activities and the back of the house is our flat. I think we got pretty lucky with our house. Although some parts of it are failing, like the fridge, the oven and one of the toilettes, we all have our own bed room, two bathrooms, even a living room, a guest room, a big kitchen and a tiny garden with a hammock. Lots of buses run into town every few minutes from the nearby bus stop right next to a Walmart. (Sometimes Costa Rica feels like Little America). Costa Rica is not a “typical” Global South country. They have a very stable democracy, a pretty progressive constitution, freedom of press, a better education and health care system than any of the other Central American countries. And they abolished their military in the 50s, which is why it’s sometimes called the “Switzerland of Central America”. At least it’s definitely not because of their great chocolate, that’s for sure! Lots of tourists, mostly North American ones, come here to visit the gorgeous beaches and the national parks with its world-famously diverse fauna and flora. Costa Rica also exports bananas, coffee, pineapples and produces Intel microchips. According to a Costa Rican friend of mine, Amazon has almost all its customer service in Costa Rica because it’s relatively cheap but people speak English. In a way Costa Rica is one the rise and on the fall at the same time. Unfortunately some achievements of the past (of which CR politicians are very proud of) are starting to fail, namely said education and social security system. Many of the natural treasures are also being destroyed a by anything-but-sustainable mass tourism. In many rural areas and in certain parts of San José many families live in poverty and are being exploited by big companies (not all of them North American to be fair, but mostly).
Most of my work takes place in La Carpio, the unofficial slum of San José. On my way to work I never leave the main road into La Carpio and from the window of the bus it doesn’t even seem that “slummy”. There are asphalt roads, street lights and supermarkets but when the locals tell you that ambulances don’t enter La Carpio without a police escort and the day care you work in has an emergency plan in case of gun fights on the streets, you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. I feel pretty safe in La Carpio and I’ve stopped looking over my shoulder and clutching my bag like a drowning purse addict. If you act like a potential mugging victim, then you get mugged. Still, I don’t walk around alone, if you don’t count the 50 metres from the bus stop to work and back, and I get out of La Carpio before the drug dealers come out around 8pm or so I’ve heard. You can see some pictures of the day care in THIS post. We have about 20 kids and we’re open from 6am to 6pm. The day care is staffed by two paid full-time employees and three German volunteers who work there between 15 and 30 hours a week. We feed the kids, we play with them, we put them to sleep for a nap, we look after them, we cook, wash dishes, clean, tidy and do anything that needs to be done. Thank god I don’t have to change nappies, the only baby we have is the son of one my colleagues. But it’s more than just taking care of the children’s physical needs. There are so many details, so many little things you need to teach kids (and parents, omg, the parents are more trouble than their kids sometimes). It’s a trap, feeling superior because you from your Western country have been raised the right way of course. But still, I’m often shocked about ignorance and attitudes about many things that seem so obvious to me. Did you know that too much sugar is unhealthy for kids? It’s important to read books to kids. Learning a musical instrument is good for your brain. Don’t give your one and a half year old coffee to drink. Children need to be outside and be able to move, to run and play. Organic food has less pesticides and herbicides and tastycides. Cookies and Coca Cola are not a wholesome lunch for a three year old. Not that those attitudes can’t be found in very rich countries. I know we all need some developing. And that’s the point of this volunteering thing, to learn from each other, share wisdoms and make experiences and I don’t mean just passively consuming whatever the “other” cultures have to offer, but “creating” experiences for yourself and everyone you meet. High school graduates from Germany won’t change the fate of their host country in that one short year, but they can nudge some people in the right direction, in their host country but especially in their home country when they return. Changing awareness followed by taking action. That’s our hope.
So what do I do at work? Everything I mentioned before, plus teaching English, doing activities like painting, arts and crafts, sing songs, throw little children in the air, force them to eat their salad, cuddle with them, prepare group games, mediate fights, listen to the kids although I only understand half of what they’re telling me in Spanish. Yeah they speak Spanish, everybody does here. Wasn’t so easy for a long time but I’m getting there. I work long hours on Monday, Tuesday and Friday at the day care, and in the church’s library Thursday afternoon. In return I get three days off a week.
This blog actually turned out to be more about my free time and vacation activities than my work, but to be honest, although I like my job, the day care is not the most exciting or diverse kind of work. So here a short as I can make it, some of the cool things I’ve done in chronological order:
September: Getting lost looking for the correct bus stops every day for more than a week. You know those useful things like bus plans and schedules? They don’t have them here. I was also visited by a friend from uni for a few days which was pretty cool. It was good to have someone to explore the city with; we did the touristy things, sight-seeing, visiting the National Museum, souvenir shopping, etc. FOTOS
October: Finally after almost two months I went to the beach for the first time. Puerto Viejo at the Caribbean Coast (see fotos HERE). Picture postcard weekend trip. First hints of a tan.
November: A trip to Bocas de Toro, Panama, with my flatmates and a group of Costa Rican university students. It rained ALL THE TIME but we still got a glipms of how beautiful it can be there if only it didn’t rain ALL THE TIME (fotos HERE) About a week before the trip I sprained my ankle, except as I found out after our return, it wasn’t sprained, I had broken my foot/leg. Yay for high pain tolerance?
December: Spent three weeks mostly at home with a cast and crutches. On my birthday I managed to go on a day trip with the two day cares the ILCO runs (fotos HERE). We also organised a lovely German style Advent celebration friends, colleagues, co-volunteers and everyone we knew from mass at “our” house. I’m not entirely sure what our Costa Rican guests thought about it, different countries have different Christmas traditions, but they didn’t say anything, they’re way too polite for that. Since I couldn’t go to work, I spent a week baking Christmas biscuits in our half-broken oven and making Christmas decorations. Since November is a pretty cloudy, rainy month it almost felt like Christmas. I had planned to travel to Nicaragua for Christmas/New Year’s with my flatmates but since I couldn’t and I didn’t want to spend three weeks alone I decided to fly back to Germany for that time. Big hole in my budget but it was a good decision. I got to see my family and some friends and take the IELTS test so I can study at a British university in the future.
January: My foot healed pretty well and all by its self so I started work again after returning from Germany. What else happened in January? Can’t remember.
February: I went to Manuel Antonio to go to the beach and finally visit a national park with one of my flatmates. It was hot and beautiful. Then there was the “Halftime-Seminar” in the Orosi Valley (fotos HERE). After the first half of our year had passed, our German organization organized a seminar with volunteers from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba. The point was to reflect on our experiences so far and prepare for the second half. We also had a topic: sustainable, organic, ethically sound agriculture and consumption. Pretty interesting and highly relevant to everybody in the world. I mean it.
To be continued…