by Joyce Chesbrough
Pura Vida! That's the salutation commonly used by Ticos (citizens) in Costa Rica, sort of like "Go Blue" in Ann Arbor. Though it literally means "Pure Life," it's really a paean to their beautiful country. We heard it a lot during our experience in Monteverde, the cloud forest region of costa Rica. We went for two weeks in February as part of a team coordinated by Global Volunteers, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization which has wide-ranging short-term service opportunities in many parts of the world. Under its aegis we had served in Delores Hidalgo, Mexico in 2005 speaking English to college students, and we were game to go to Costa Rica although we did not know what our jobs would be.
It developed that of our group of 17, 12 would work at refurbishing the community center of St. Louis and 5 of us would work at CASEM, a women's cooperative in Santa Elana. We "CASEM Five" were the latest Global Volunteers team to work under the direction of Dona Nery Gomez, the manager of CASEM. She was one of its eight founding members who in 1982 defied custom and a patriarchal society to come to gather to form a cooperative, secretly create and sell handicrafts and seek to better themselves and their families.
Because of her dedication, intelligence and energy, CASEM today is an attractive, well-maintained store much frequented by tourists, birders, ex-pats, and bus tours. She has directed the many improvements added over the years by Global Volunteers teams, and she had a substantial list for us: renovate, relocate and create bookshelves for the main floor, make storage areas for the workroom upstairs, paint the art gallery, solve some plumbing problems, and help out with the daily lunch preparations. Lunches were a happy time with Tica staff members, gringo helpers, various member of the cooperative and occasional children all sitting around the big table eating and trying to bridge between Spanish and English. Our "Bridge" was Ileana, a lovely young Tica who had been an exchange student in Minnesota and was an essential resource for CASEM and us. With her help, I was able to interview Dona Nery and to write out an informal history of CASEM to be stored in their computer and perhaps used in future grant applications.
Our whole group was housed in a comfortable little hotel in Santa Elena where we also took our meals. On the weekend ten of us traveled van-boat-van over execrable roads to Fortuna, a bustling tourist mecca with a live volcano, arenal, looming over us and sprouting puffs of smoke during the day and burning fingers of lava at night.
Costa Rica is the mother lode of biodiversity and we had several opportunities to experience it: spider monkeys, sloths, tarantulas, strangler figs, stinky-toe trees, iguanas, quetzals – the list is endless. Our most memorable experiences, however were the many interactions with the citizens as we worked together toward a common goal.
Participating in the everyday life of a country provides a very different and very gratifying travel experience. The Global Volunteers mantra is that we are servant/workers making ourselves available to carry out the wishes and plans of the local organization. In doing so, we observe and learn and hopefully gain insights into another culture while being good ambassadors of our own. Pura Vida!