Costa Rica-Nine Days to Forever Remember

When given the opportunity to choose a project that would lead to a life changing experience, I knew I wanted to study abroad. Having never travelled outside of the country, this was the perfect opportunity to take my first steps outside of the United States of America. I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. On this service learning trip, we first toured EARTH University, an agricultural university in Costa Rica educating students from countries all over Latin America and some in Africa. The second part of our nine-day trip was spent with local Costa Rican families learning about their culture, spending time with them, and doing community service projects. The rest of our trip was spent travelling the country and seeing the different landscapes in Costa Rica.

I knew that travelling outside of the United States, particularly to a developing country would be a transformative experience, but it was transformative in a way I was not exactly expecting. Transformation does not come without challenge. One of the ways I was expecting to be challenged and thus ultimately changed, was through the language barrier of Costa Rica being a Spanish speaking country.  I took four years of high school Spanish so I would say I have an elementary skill level of Spanish. Knowing Spanish was not a requirement to go on this trip so I knew I would not be completely incapable of enjoying this trip and communicating with others with my low level of Spanish. I was excited to see how well my Spanish would hold up. Through the trip some of my strengths were reinforced while my pride was also revealed in a way I never knew.

At EARTH University, the students we interacted with were often not native Spanish speakers, many of them being from African countries did not know Spanish before coming to EARTH. However, they each learned Spanish and were also fluent in English, making all of them essentially trilingual. Interacting with these students showed how crucial language truly is. It can be easy to be in the United States and think down upon those in developing countries that they do not have the same intellect but these students shattered those molds. They spoke multiple languages and were becoming experiments in specialized agricultural fields. Pride in our country is inherently a good thing, but it is also important to recognize the brilliant young minds of those in these developing countries. I, for one, do not speak more than one language and am not as knowledgeable as these men and women were about their fields. They were doing some incredible work at EARTH which mostly opened up my mind to the genius ideas and practices happening around the world that could be learned from here in the United States, particularly in utilizing nature’s natural advantages.

Touring the variety of farms on EARTH’s campus showcased the work the students were doing which complimented their education. They learned in the classroom but also with their hands on the farms. They were learning how to utilize the beauty of creation to their advantage in their agriculture. There are too many examples to recount them all but one in particular was the way they utilized the natural fragrance of the plants which essential oils are extracted from to keep away insects from their crops. They would strategically plant these essential oil plants, like lavender and mint, at the ends of their open-air greenhouses so that when the wind would blow it would carry the scent of the plant across the crops, deterring insects. The resourcefulness of the students was incredible to see in action. It inspires me to learn how to implement these practices in my own life now and in the future. To become aware of how creation is designed to work together and be used to enhance how we live and work.

{This picture is the open-air greenhouse with the essential oil plants in front. There are many other really incredible features of nature being utilized in this picture}

The home stays with local Costa Rican families and community service projects were what led to my challenging yet transformative experience with language. One of the community service projects we aided in was the installation of a biodigestor at a local farm. We helped serve as the hands to help this project move forward. A professor at EARTH came to lead us in the installation. He did not speak English so our guide Stephanie translated. At the beginning of the project, she translated every sentence. However, as we progressed in the work, Stephanie translated less. Despite her not translating as much, I was able to understand him, which was a cool experience. I had never directly worked in a language barrier situation such as this before. Our group spilt to stay with several families for the home stay. Myself, two other students, and one of the OSU faculty stayed together with grandparents who ran a bed and breakfast. We primarily interacted with the grandma and her daughter and grandson who lived next door. The grandmother did not speak any English but her daughter and grandson spoke some English. This was a real test of my Spanish, luckily two of the others staying with me were much more proficient in Spanish.

One evening we talked with our sweet host as we washed dishes in her kitchen. We were in her home and due to her only speaking Spanish, the conversation was in Spanish. I could understand most everything she said as she spoke. I have been told before that I am a good listener and I have recognized that as one of my strengths over the years. These situations of listening well and understanding as conversation was held in her kitchen and in the installation of the biodigestor further affirmed my strength of listening. However, this simple no pressure conversation in the kitchen also revealed my own pride that I have come to realize often keeps me from speaking and acting. As mentioned, I could understand the conversation but my contribution to the conversation was slim. Not because I didn’t know any Spanish but because fear of embarrassment kept my mouth from speaking the words I knew were not going to come out as fluent Spanish but at the very least as understandable Spanish. Over this trip, I came to recognize how this fear of embarrassment often stopping me from being heard and doing not just in Costa Rica but in my everyday life. How I actually miss out on certain things because of this fear. Now being aware of this, I have been working to overcome this pride and instead put on humility. It’s not easy, but it is something that is worth it, because those around me deserve my vulnerability, because that is how authenticity manifest itself. I wish I could go back and just speak to her in my broken Spanish, but it is too late for that now, but I hope that I get the opportunity to speak and act in other situations in the future because of this encounter.

A reflection of this trip would not be complete without mentioning two Costa Ricans who played a critical role in making this trip as fantastic as it was. Stephanie our guide and Carlos our bus driver spent the entire nine days with us. They travelled, ate, talked, and laughed with us. Stephanie was a twenty-one-year-old incredible woman who lead us and kept us on schedule. She was bilingual and such a sweet and caring guide. She made sure we were on time to everything, translated for us when needed, and shared about her dream of working with an international company. She also talked some about her husband and just showed a love and loyalty to him that was inspiring. Carlos was an older gentleman who was not our original bus driver. Our original driver ended up not having the right certifications to drive on EARTH’s campus so Carlos became our driver and it was meant to be. Carlos spoke very little English but the man loved as so well. Through the week, we learned that he has been divorced for twenty years and his kids and grandkids live farther away. He typically drives bus in San Jose and we were the first group he has ever spent an extended time with. He loved us as his own children, always trying to make sure we were having a good time and smiling. He loved to make us laugh and by the end of the week we all had nicknames from Carlos. Leaving them on that early Sunday morning was not without tears from all. Stephanie and Carlos loved us well in the short time they got to know us. You cannot really ask for more than someone who chooses to love and share joy with you.

These words can only attempt to describe this nine-day adventure to Costa Rica. The people, the experiences, the lessons shared in this trip cannot fully be expressed in words, it was a trip that will forever hold a special place in my heart.  

{The group from OSU that went to Costa Rica with two of the EARTH students. We saw a sloth on our drive back from a tour so we had to stop and take a picture.}

 -Joelle Hemmelgarn

One thought on “Costa Rica-Nine Days to Forever Remember

  1. Joelle I’m glad that your experiences in Costa Rica taught you so much about yourself and that you have plans to use what you learned to more fully engage in life.

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