In the summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to go to Costa Rica for a volunteering internship. I had applied for that project because the dates were a bit flexible, I could choose how long I was going to stay, and because it was a project more related to entrepreneurship and administration. I was going to work in a team on a new business plan for the NGO to become financially independent from external donors. I really liked this more ‘professional’ side to the experience and saw it more as an internship than a volunteering project.
I remember how nervous and excited I felt when I first arrived. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Was I going to make friends? Or was I going to be lonely and homesick the entire time? Would I understand when people speak Spanish with their Costa Rican accent? Was the project going to meet my expectations? The first week was all about adjusting but after the third week I felt at home in San José (the capital). It would be my home for 3 months!
The project and my experience exceeded my expectations by far. And I want to write here about my 5 highlights of this adventure in Costa Rica.
1. Local culture + International vibe.
To my surprise, I was the only international volunteer/intern at the beginning. I was a bit anxious of having to discover everything on my own and not having ‘people like me’ going through a similar experience by my side. But soon I realised how lucky I was to have had those first 3-4 weeks as only ‘external’. It allowed me to make real connections and friendships with the local people. I got to work closely with many locals from the project, got invited to their homes and live an authentic Costa Rican daily life experience.
Then, after these few weeks, the other international interns for the project arrived. A Peruvian guy at first, followed by 2 Brazilians, 3 Chinese girls, a Polish girl… and soon we were more than 10 volunteers working in the project. Everyone came with typical foods from their countries, their country flags and even some souvenirs for the other volunteers. It was just very interesting to be part of such an international group all working and having fun together. I love that my experience had both aspects of local culture + international vibe :-).
2. Learning so much
Our project coordinator was actually the dean of a private university. She loved to teach and wanted the interns to learn a lot by working in the project. I can still remember the hour long drives with her driving and explaining about different business theories, psychology, marketing, Costa Rican history and geography… I felt very privileged to work with a woman like that. She inspired me a lot. I learned not only from her “lectures” but also from her behaviour, about how she took care of her business, of the people who worked for her and how she achieved to be this successful and insightful woman.
3. The indigenous people
The NGO I worked for had as purpose to bring higher education to all 8 different indigenous communities of Costa Rica. To do that, almost every weekend we would go with several cars and some professors of the university to the different regions of the country to give classes over the weekend in the indigenous communities. As part of the project, the volunteers had to go to help with logistics; taking care of the class materials and preparing lunch for the community during class hours. I spent hours cooking and hanging out with Costa Rican indigenous sharing about our respective cultures and ways of life. We always stayed at their houses for the night as well. It was very humbling to experience how these people live on a daily basis and to be inside their reality even if just for a weekend. It brings my life so much perspective.
4. The long hikes to the communities.
Some of these indigenous communities live in villages far away in the mountains and they are unreachable by road. So we had to leave the cars in the nearest village and sometimes walk for 4 hours, carrying all the class equipment and food through the jungle, to reach the indigenous villages where we would stay for the weekend to teach the classes. Since we left San José in the late afternoon on Friday, we always arrived at the village at night, walking with our headlights on. For some of the walking routes we had to cross rivers, through indigenous made bridges and sometimes literally through the river, with water at knee height. I have done quite some hikes for leisure before but this was not a hike for fun, it was literally the only way to get there! Well, it was also a lot of fun :-D.
5. That one crazy truck ride through the mountain!
It had rained a lot for several days, and the way to that particular indigenous village was rendered very difficult by walking, the river flow was too fast, the mud made it too difficult to walk. So, our boss decided to borrow the truck of a local farmer in the nearby village and put all the interns at the back of the truck. The driver was a local who knew his mountain, so he wasn’t afraid of going fast and rough! It felt like being on a roller coaster in the jungle in the middle of the night… for 2 hours… Definitely one of the most memorable adventures of my 3 months in Costa Rica X-D.
This experience happened 2 years ago, but to this day I am still close with some of the other volunteers, with the Costa Rican AIESECers and most importantly, with the project itself! We often get updates via our WhatsApp group about how the NGO is doing and how many indigenous people are given the opportunity to follow higher education.
I’ll forever be grateful to AIESEC as the organisation that made this experience possible for me. And that is why I myself work in AIESEC today, to help other people to go volunteer in projects such as the one I had. It is such an enriching adventure. It makes you feel like you really are “living life to the fullest”. So, whoever is reading this, I hope you will get the chance to live such experience yourself ;-).
Pura Vida xoxo
– Eleonore Levie
Volunteer in the International Cooperation Program, San José, Costa Rica.