Study Abroad Reflection


Costa Rica Reflection

“With age, comes wisdom. With travel, comes understanding.” Sandra Lake. This quote by Sandra Lake, a historical novelist, perfectly summarizes the trip I experienced in Costa Rica. It is very difficult to put into words the incredible experience I had. It was spectacular, breathe taking, life changing, inspiring, refreshing and yet so much more. This past spring break I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Costa Rica to do a comprehensive service learning trip with The Ohio State Agriculture School.  During the trip we had the opportunity to meet students from all over the world and were blessed to meet some of the nicest and most gracious natives (Ticos).

During the first couple days in Costa Rica we stayed at Earth University in the Limon Province. Earth or (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) is a private, non-profit university that offers two programs of study: an undergraduate licenciatura degree in agricultural sciences and natural resources management and a master’s degree in agribusiness innovation. At the university I was able to meet students from Ghana, Zambia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda and Nicaragua. It was a blessing to be able to talk with these students and to learn from their experiences. All of the students at this university are very driven and were selected for a reason. I remember talking with Christopher, he gave us the first tour of the cocoa plant, and he went to high school in England, knew 4 languages and had been to the U.S. several times. I asked him what the biggest culture shock was when he had first came to the U.S. He paused and then told me that the people in the U.S were selfish and did not care about anyone rather than themselves. I took this to heart and I knew exactly what he was talking about. In Costa Rica everyone truly cared about everyone else and it was amazing to see that genuine interaction between people rather than the superficial actions of Americans.

The second day in Costa Rica we went with Seth and Salome to the Periurban Agriculture Farm. This place was truly amazing. It was a small farm location located on the outskirts of the banana plantation and was absolutely amazing. This farm was used as an experiment for the students. Seth and Salome explained the hydroponic systems to us and showed us several different systems to grow different plants without soil. We first saw waist high planters with lettuce and celery growing. There was no soil in these planters, but only rice husks, charcoal (filter) and fibers to hold the water. These were waist high in order for the gardeners to be more hands on with the plants that they were growing. It was an interesting concept that I had never heard of, but it made sense.

We continued to walk the property and saw how they tried out different concepts. They had a greenhouse facing East/ West and one facing North/South. They determined that the North/South one was in fact warmer than the other which was very interesting. They also had pyramid type planters. We were told that the soil in Costa Rica is rather toxic and that the planters were necessary for different types of plants. On the other side of the planters was a mandala. This was a foreign concept for me. A mandala has to deal with the solar system and the balance that the universe is in. The center of this mandala was a specific type of plant that might have been soolantra. Surrounding the center planter were rings of different plants. This is to symbolize the sun as the center of the solar system and the planets surrounding and benefitting from it. In this case as the wind blew it would pick up particles from the plants that would in turn spread and work as a natural insect repellant. It blew my mind that this worked and this was really the instant that I realized that I have so much to learn from these people because I know very little. We walked the rest of the property and they showed us how they utilized almost everything for their planters including old bikes, 2 liter bottles, carts and even aluminum cans. They used everything and were a truly a self-sustainable system. Finally, we were able to create our own hanging flower pots. It was very cool to see how easy, but impactful these would be and I was glad to be able to help. To end this experience Seth gave us a very heartfelt speech to end the visit. He talked to us about how life is a give and take relationship. We cannot go our whole life taking or giving. There is a very important balance that we need to find. He also emphasized that hard work coupled with compassion and understanding will go a long way. After only a couple hours with Seth and Salome it had felt that I knew them for years.

During this trip I was exposed to several different landscapes. This was very fitting because I presented on the different ecosystems in our pre departure seminar and thus it was very rewarding to see them in person. The main ecosystems that we saw were the rainforests to start. During our homestays I was lucky enough to stay in the heart of the rainforest in La Argentina. It was about 10 hectares in the rainforest with about 200 steps leading down to the property. The wildlife in the rainforest is very hard to describe. There are more insects than I could wrap my mind around. I could not even try to describe the amount of birds I saw and more that I heard from a distance. For example, I got to see spiders the size of my head, leaf cutter ants, bullet ants, snakes, frogs, lizards, birds and so many more that I could not identify. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity and to be honest I did not believe that until I saw it firsthand. It was incredible to see how green and alive everything was. This may sound strange, but when we were at the homestay the air was so fresh and it sounds weird, but it is true. Being back in the city now there is definitely a huge difference. At the homestay, Douglass and Maria raised Tilapia from Thailand. They had several different ponds for different sized fish and one night we had fresh fish and it may have been the best meal I have ever had in my life. It was rice and beans with tilapia topped with fresh coconut dressing and of course fresh melon, pineapple, and papaya.

At Earth University which is in a comparative ecosystem to the rainforest we had the opportunity to view a banana plantation. Some things that I learned were that each tree only produces 1 bundle of bananas and then the tree dies. I also learned that the banana trees are not strong enough to hold the fruit and thus have to be tied up. Banana plantations are also always surrounded by large trees in order to block wind because the wind is strong enough to blow the trees over and ruin the fruit. Another fact is that the fruit has to be covered with a bag and separated with styrofoam in order to protect them from insects, but mainly to limit the bruises because they won’t sell if it is bruised.

The other contrasting landscape was the Arenal Volcano and the cloud forests. On Thursday we got to hike Arenal and talk about spectacular! This was the most beautiful view I had ever seen. On our hike it was a scene out of Jurassic Park. We were hiking on a narrow trail through 6-7 ft tall grass. It was a very dry environment and as we approached the volcano the dirt trail turned to volcanic rocks. It was a completely different environment and we were told that since the volcano was such a large land mass it had its own ecosystem which was different from the rest of the surrounding areas. Along the trail we saw tress that must have been hundreds of years old and the size of a house. There were very vibrant colored plants and animals, but different compared to the rainforest because everything seems to be dry. This could have been because the day that we went was very hot and sunny.

After visiting the volcano we climbed elevation toward El Mirador. This was a location at which we ate lunch and it was around the same elevation at which the summit of Arenal was at (5,358 ft) high. While driving to this elevation we saw a drastic change in the scenery. It went from bright and sunny to a foggy/ misty and a wet climate. We entered the cloud forest layer which is due to an elevation change and at some point on the drive we could barely see. It was crazy to see firsthand the differences in ecosystems in such a small area. The plant life went from very colorful to just green and it compared with the Ohio landscape in some respect, but it had many more hills and valleys. I got to see terrace farming which was eye opening. The people of Costa Rica may not have a whole lot, but they make do with what they have. I was looking back through my photos and they do not do the country side justice whatsoever. In a matter of hours we went from the beaches of Cahuita to a volcano and then to cloud forests at a very high elevation. It is quite crazy to think about.

This trip could be classified into two different sections, the service and the travel sections. The first few days of the trip were focused more so on the service aspect and we were thrown into the Costa Rican culture. There were three main events that happened during the first couple of days and that included the bio-digester instillation, painting of the school and the homestay. A bio-digester is simply a large bag that is filled with water and waste from the household and animals that essentially ferments and produces methane which is captured and then used to power the house. It is a very smart and cost efficient product that is widely used in Costa Rica. We traveled to the rural parts of Costa Rica to install one. I was in charge of building up the initial concrete barrier in order for water to be stored and then transferred into the bio-digester. I also helped with leveling of the hole. What I gained from this experience was not only about the importance of the installation and how it would help the household become more self-sustainable, but I got to see the joy of the Ticos and how they worked. To put it simply they were very hard workers. They were also very patient, helpful and never once seemed annoyed with us. They wanted to teach us not only about what we were installing, but about the different types of fruit on the property, their life history, the area etc. It was eye opening to just meet these people and suddenly you are talking to them about their children or their childhood. It was an experience I will not soon forget. It was also a pleasure to see the joy of the home owners when we inflated the bio-digester because before then I did not know how much this installation meant to them.

The next event that we did in La Argentina was painting of the school. We arrived to the school not really knowing what to expect. We arrive at a very small school that has to combine grades into classrooms because of the size. We were welcomed by the students and then in a matter of minutes we somehow started playing soccer with David, a 6th grade student at the school. I stayed back and “played” goalie, but mostly I just wanted to observe. We all had such a good time playing and it was if nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter who won or lost, but about the experience itself. I got to talk with David a little after the game and I accidently told him I wanted to drink a snake which he got a good laugh about. Then we had to get to work and he had to get to class. We were painting the side of the school a bright green color. To be honest it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. The paint did not stick very well and we didn’t have rollers, but looking back it was so much fun to talk with the other members in our group. It was a great bonding experience because, like I mentioned earlier there were no other worries besides painting and I formed some strong bonds with people in my group. The only downfall about painting the school was that I was the tallest and therefore I had to paint the high up locations. Let’s just say my shoulder was pretty sore, but it was well worth it.

The last but most influential aspect of this trip was by far the homestay. On Monday and Tuesday night I had the absolute privilege to stay at Raices and Roots with Douglass and Maria. It was myself, Matt, Eli and Nick who stayed at their house for two nights. They owned about 10 hectares with approximately 200 steep steps leading down to their property. On their property were several different Tilapia ponds, 2 houses and a greenhouse. There were probably 2 hectares of open land and the rest was rainforest with a beautiful river ending the property in the back. My first impression of the property was absolute amazement. It was something out of a magazine. Everything was open, they had electricity, but no hot water. I got to sleep in a mosquito net and fall asleep to rain against a metal roof. It was quite the experience because it showed me how happy people can be with very little compared to what we are used to in the U.S. The real experiences came from our conversations with Douglass. He spoke somewhat broken English, but we tried our best to communicate via Spanish. Douglass was 69 years old with tons of stories and experiences that he shared with us. On Tuesday morning before we went to the school he took us on a hike through his property. Every 50-100 yards he would stop and relate life to something that we were seeing on the hike. For example, if we saw a walking palm with vines going all throughout it he would explain to us that the vines our like our lives and the journey we will have in life will not be easy, but in the end we will find happiness and success if we keep working. He had numerous sayings about life and how it will knock you down, but keep on fighting because it will get better. During this walk we stopped at a gazebo that he had right on the river. We sat down and he told us about the reason he named the farm Raices and Roots. Douglass went on to tell us that the first reason was that there were so many tree roots on the property and he was not exaggerating, I tripped several times. The second reason is when he went into his past. He started with telling us about his career in decoding Morose Code on different ships and then how he went to New Jersey. He admitted to us that he was an illegal immigrant and that his experience in the US was different than most. He was always concerned because he didn’t have any papers and that on one Christmas Eve it finally hit him that he was not happy. Yes, he was making descent money, but that wasn’t important. He then traveled back to Costa Rica and purchased the farm just a few miles from where he grew up as a kid. He told us how important his “Roots” were and that is where his true happiness was. Douglass emphasized how important his family was along with being surrounded with people who genuinely cared for his well-being. Douglass was not perfect by any means and neither are we, but he put into perspective how he dealt with the balance of life and his process for determining what is really important.  In the end we are all born and we all die. Those are the only two guarantees we have in life and the rest is up to us. The journey is where we grow and develop and that is what Douglass was trying to get us to realize.

To summarize briefly, this trip was simply amazing. Like I have said beforehand, words along with images do not do this trip the justice it deserves. I was not only embraced by the people of Costa Rica, but also the people in our group including you, Paul (El Jaguar). I learned so much about myself to not judge, embrace change and most importantly to be open to what others have to offer. I was continually astounded by the generosity of the Ticos and it touched my heart. It has definitely been a major change being back in the US. I am desperately clinging to that magical week and resisting going back to my “old” self. I find myself constantly looking back at the images from the week and they always bring a smile to my face. I will forever cherish those memories and I have Ohio State and you, Paul, to thank for that. As Sandra Lake said, “With age, comes wisdom. With travel, comes understanding.” I now see the world around me in a different light and this trip has inspired me to go out and travel to many more places in order to gain a full understanding of the world.

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