The summer after my freshman year of college, I decided to travel to Costa Rica to volunteer with International Student Volunteers (ISV). I was 18 and had no idea what to expect. Most people go to Costa Rica for a relaxing time at a resort… I was going to be living in the rainforest doing conservation research for 2 weeks.
When I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, a 6 hour drive and hour long boat ride awaited my volunteer group. As we traveled through the country, my group of 11 volunteers marveled at the beauty and wildlife, and couldn’t wait to see the village we would soon call home.
To give you a little more background on the village itself, it was nestled in the rainforest of the Osa Peninsula, about an hour walk from the town of Drake. The village had gotten electricity about 2 years before my visit, and had about 10 small homes. This small community of people, including my hosts, were some of the most humble and happy human beings I have yet to encounter and they were gracious hosts.
The home I stayed in (pictured above) was small, with a tin roof and hammocks on the front porch. My home for the next two weeks was vastly different than what I was use to, and quite frankly, I was terrified.
I learned so much from my experiences in Costa Rica, but there we a couple of things that really resinated with me while on my trip…
I learned about ISV through a friend at college, and the second I went to their info night I was hooked! I immediately called my parents for their opinion on wether of not I should go on this once in a life time trip. After hearing both of my parents thoughts, I decided that I needed to go and no one could change my mind.
This was the first major decision that I had made as an adult, and to be honest, not everyone was on board with it. But, I quickly learned that being an adult means that you are in charge of your decisions and mistakes, no one else. Not everyone is going to agree with what you do or how you do it, and that’s ok! Learning this early in my adult life has really helped me make my own life choices, and has helped me get through major life moments.
The moral of the story is, don’t let others get in the way of your dreams and your choices. Live the life that YOU want to live, because you are the one that lives with the choices you make.
2. Having to facing your fears can be a good thing.
Traveling to Costa Rica was the first time really I traveled on my own. I went there not knowing anyone, or really anything about the country and its culture.
It was exciting, but terrifying. My first night with my host family was spent lying in bed wide awake and walking around my new home scared of all of the bugs I had never seen before, and quite frankly, never wanted to see again. I thought I made a HUGE mistake. What was I thinking?! Living in the rainforest with people I’ve never met and animals and creatures I’ve never even heard of. It was complete and utter culture shock.
Even though my trip had a rough start, I will be eternally grateful for having to face my fears of traveling alone, seeing bugs of all shapes and sizes, and doing things I have done before. There were many times throughout my trip that I was afraid, sometimes downright terrified, but I learned that facing your fears and diving into new experiences is what life is all about! Living through the good, the bad, and the scary is what makes us who we are.
3. Go big or go home
Throughout my trip, there were plenty of opportunities to do things that I have never done before. Whitewater rafting, surfing, self-repelling down a waterfall, etc. And there were some people in my group that didn’t want to join in for what I would think to be once in a lifetime experiences. It was then, I found the true meaning of the phrase “go big or go home.” I thought to myself, “why would you come all this way to just sit and watch other people enjoy these experiences?”
Ever since then, I try to experience as much as I possibly can when I travel, because I never know when I will get that experience again. Go surfing and fall 50 times, try that weird looking food, do it all! Experience all there is to experience!
4. Body language is universal
My host family in Costa Rica only spoke Spanish, and while I took Spanish in high school, by the end of my freshman year of college I had forgotten almost all of it. I knew some basic conversational phrases, but after that I was unable to verbally communicate with my host family.
I quickly learned that having a language barrier didn’t mean I couldn’t communicate with others. My host mom showed me her kindness through her meal preparation and cleaning the house everyday while we were out working. Her children were too young to understand that I couldn’t speak Spanish, but I communicated with them through playing with them outside and showing them how to use my digital camera.
Even though I was unable to communicate most things through words, it was a very eye opening experience to learn how to communicate in other ways, and show my hosts how grateful I was for their hospitality.
5. The little things matter
Living in a home so much different than what I grew up in was an overwhelming experience. My host family’s way of life was vastly different from what I knew, but it made me appreciate the little things in life (as cheese as that sounds).
My hosts did not have cellphones or cable, the kitchen sink was outside, and the house had very little electricity. My days were spent play cards with their 7 year old daughter and walking to the beach in my free time. Every Costa Rican I met had such a happy disposition, and always left you by saying “Pura Vida.”
This phrase directly translates to “pure life,” but to the Costa Ricans, it simple means to live with eternal optimism and to take it easy. The Costa Rican culture really taught me to appreciate the small things, and to live for the moment.
Taking a look back on my trip, I wouldn’t change a thing. Every penny I spent, every experience I had (good and bad) were what made my experience what it was. I would highly recommend traveling to a place you’ve never been or doing something that may even scare you a little. Don’t forget to take chances in life, they may surprise you!