The Costa Rica Agricultural Sustainability Service-Learning Program encompassed a nine-day trip to Costa Rica with the intention of gaining knowledge about environmental and agricultural sustainability. We were able to learn about various service projects applicable to sustainability in a tropical environment, and had the chance to observe real-world agricultural through various farm tours and natural environments in Costa Rica.
I have now been to Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, and the differences between the first two places and the latter are still shocking to me. My view of Central America has been twisted to consist almost exclusively of corruption, poverty, violence, and gang influence. It was so wonderful to witness a similar culture, climate, and geography that ISN’T struggling. As a civil engineer, one thing stood out to me especially: the infrastructure. Although Costa Rica isn’t impressive when placed next to the extremely high standards held for water systems and drainage in the United States, it is night and day compared to my personal experience in El Salvador and Honduras. Just the fact that infrastructure such as storm drainage and sewage systems functionally exist is encouraging to me, as it tells me that Costa Rica is thriving enough to have resources that improve quality of life beyond survival. This is exciting and fuels my passion for humanitarian engineering work in impoverished areas of Central America, knowing that Costa Rica can be a successful model.
Given that I having a relatively fluent speaking level, I was able to have an extremely rewarding and unique experience during my time at the homestay. I was nervous coming into the trip, given that I knew I would be the only Spanish-speaker in our house and that I have had very limited translating experience. Elias and his wife, Anna, could not have provided a more encouraging learning environment. They were so obviously intentional about their word choices, speaking pace, and gesticulations, showing patience and awareness of the difficulty involved with a non-native speaker.
Given my ability to communicate, I was able to get some really neat insight from Elias regarding his community, Costa Rica as a whole, and his perception of the United States. Because he provides food for many families, he shared with me as we rode through town to the church that he knows just about everyone. I learned that it is extremely common in that community to stay after being born and raised there—which explained why their daughter Mariana pointed in what felt like 80 directions, saying “prima, tio, primo, primo, tia, tio, abuela, primo, abuelo” and so on. It seemed reminiscent of small towns in the United States, where people seem to put a lot of weight in being physically near family and valuing their commitment to the community they were raised in.
A neat experience for me personally was our visit to the Catholic church on Sunday evening, as I was raised in the Catholic church. It was extremely fascinating to see not only the differences, but the innumerable similarities between my experiences in mass in the United States and what I experienced in their setting. Even the songs were the same, but simply in Spanish. Although this didn’t surprise me, it was really neat to experience something so familiar in a place so foreign.
The realization that Central America, an area I am very passionate about, does in fact have successful regions capitalizing on their natural and cultural vibrancy is extremely exciting and encouraging. There are times during my humanitarian engineering studies where I have felt discouraged by the violence in Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, so I am happy to see a positive role model in such close proximity to these struggling countries. I am feeling re-invigorated towards my goals in service and engineering outreach in Central America and plan to learn more about Costa Rica to help with my understanding of developing areas.