Sometimes, you don’t really know what you’re getting into. And sometimes, it’s better that way.
That was my experience with volunteering in Costa Rica. Despite my research, I was not prepared to be plunged into San José, the heart and soul of a developing nation. Am I not from a “developing nation” myself? Yes and no – I guess it depends on your definition. Briefly, and without getting into semantics or etymology, Kuwait is oil-rich and has little in common with other countries in its same category like Haiti, Senegal and Nepal. Kuwait has functioning highways, modern shopping malls, international franchises and the average citizen boasts a high(er) income. In all other regards, however, Kuwait is still lagging and is certainly on the lower rungs of the global development ladder when it comes to education, industry and economy. On the surface, Kuwait City looks nothing like San José, Costa Rica.
At least a dozen people have asked me why. Why Costa Rica? Why volunteer? Why so far away? Why are you going alone? I’m tempted to shrug my shoulders and ask them, why not? But people want details so, after much procrastination, here’s the story. I love to travel, possibly more than the average, sensible person. There’s something so exciting and thrilling about going somewhere for the first time. What will I discover here? What will I remember? Will I love it? It’s like opening a brand new journal and running my hands over the paper. Landing in a new city is the moment right before I make that first mark with my pen in a new journal. New cities are like blank pages, I may have grand plans for them but I never know what’s coming next.
I enjoy meeting people and listening to their stories, but I hate being a tourist. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s something exquisite in finding boutique hotels and appreciating their distinctive ornamentations. It’s glorious to throw yourself on 500 thread count sheets on a California king bed and reach for the room service menu for some light reading. I enjoy walking the streets with a gigantic camera, the only pressing decision is if I should get a sweet or savoury snack next. It’s thrilling to order an unforgettable salad at a small café or find a quaint purse. I relish those finds; I love that kind of holiday. Yet oftentimes I crave more.
I long for human interaction when I’m abroad. I want real stories, from real people, beyond the polite nod and smile or brief exchange as I pay for my purchases. Take Kevin, the waiter, for example. He greeted me warmly every morning while I was staying at a side street hotel in San José. Tall and broad but soft-spoken and polite, he promptly brought my coffee and added just enough warm milk. As per his recommendation, I’d order the typical Tico breakfast without glancing at the menu. He’d nod and beam at me in approval. I noticed his braces, his young features and wondered if he’s even eighteen. Where do you live? I wanted to know, and how many siblings do you have? Instead, I asked him about the piña and guyaba marmalades that I grew to love. He rushed to the kitchen to bring back an empty bucket to show me the brand name.
The quintessential tourist will travel the world and talk about his or her adventures only, without much context. Sometimes, they’ll speak of a local tour guide, a taxi driver or an old beggar. These snippets will be buried between layers of details about the food, the weather, the funny incidents and the storyteller’s perception of the country and its people – formed from behind glass walls and based on interactions with those in the tertiary sector of an economy. There’s nothing wrong with that. That kind of tourism is vital. On the other hand, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting much more out of your travels.
I have always wanted to volunteer abroad, to live with a host family, to learn a new language and absorb a new culture. Growing up, I would listen to my father’s stories of his travels in Asia, Africa and Europe. I loved hearing about the people he met, the villages he passed through and the homes he stayed in. I imagined myself with him, trudging through snow or waking up with farmers in Faiyum, the oldest city in Egypt. Majoring in anthropology further instilled in me this fascination with cultures and different communities. I’ve been itching for an opportunity like this and I finally had the means to go out and explore the world. That’s why I did it.
It was almost impossible for me to blog while I was there, in the thick of it. I was busy with Spanish classes and volunteering at my project, I was meeting people and exploring a lush country with so much to give. I was making memories and I couldn’t find the time to process it all. I did jot down a few notes here and there and I have almost 1,000 pictures! Anyone surprised? Now that I’ve started writing about Costa Rica, I hope my next few blog posts will be easier. I can’t wait to share my adventures with you! Adiós.