In Costa Rica I spent one month in Liberia (the second largest city in the country) teaching English in both an elementary school and an adult classroom. The second month I spent working conservation in a national park called Barra Honda. This included work with different species in the park as well as general maintenance and research work for the park service.
Liberia is crazy. It is a really strange cross between being very modern and Americanized, and being a typical Costa Rican town. For example- there are many signs in English everywhere, and they have a McDonalds as well as many other American fast-food places, and they have more technology some places than you'd expect, but- the only food you can order some places is rice and beans, everything is in Colones (the currency of Costa Rica), the owners of stores mostly don't speak English, and the locals really seem to resent foreigners.
That said, I am lucky to have taken Spanish since 4th grade and all throughout high school- so I was actually one of the best Spanish speakers out of all the volunteers that I met. This was infinitely helpful for me, especially when teaching English and communicating with my host family.
My mother, Carmen, and father, Luis spoke no English at all, and my sister, Maria Jose, was actually almost fluent in English (but she was almost never around!). Anyway, living with a host family was an incredible experience if only because it integrated me into the culture that much more quickly. I really felt like I became part of the family, and I learned a lot about so many topics I had never come into contact with having lived in the U.S.
Teaching English was actually very difficult. I am not sure what I was expecting, but teaching English to kids and adults who have never had it before is a nightmare.I actually spent most of my placement in a school which had never had an English program before. So, another volunteer (from Holland) and I had to kickstart the program with our own lesson plans and ideas from scratch. It was a great experience for me, but I'm not so sure how much the kids got out of it. Schools in Costa Rica are fairly disorganized, and it was hard to get kids to listen and pay attention. All the time, kids would just be chasing each other around, leaving the classroom, hurting each other, and just adamantly not listening. This was made even worse by the fact that other teachers and staff members just didn't seem to care about the kids or their education. Definitely a different world, but also ridiculously hard to adjust to considering my private school education in the suburbs of Washington DC.
I also taught adults, though. Twice a week I went to my "community class" at night at a local elementary school and taught a class of complete beginners. I was given a little more of a "curriculum" with lesson plans for this one, and it did help that it was a class of adults who were actually interested in learning. We didn't get very far (i was only there a month) but I did manage to teach them the alphabet, the verb "to be", negatives and questions with "to be", and some vocabulary and verbs to go with them. Teaching in Liberia was a mind-blowing experience. So difficult, but so worth it.
In my second placement in Barra Honda National Park we did a number of things within the park as well as maintenance of the camp area where we lived and work on the park futbol field. I was able to do research on butterflies and bats in the park by catching and identifying different species in order to determine which habitats and elevations were most appropriate for each. Barra Honda was definitely very challenging physically- but it was so nice to know that I was assisting the park service in making the park experience better for its inhabitants as well as visitors to the area. Barra Honda is actually famous for its caves! So one day I got to explore the biggest cave (that is open to tourists) with one of the guides and it was incredibly cool! I also got the experience of marking a trail, using a machete for the first time, climbing up a waterfall, and sleeping under a mosquito net. Also, Barra Honda provided an opportunity for a lot of introspection on my part, as it was a very remote area and we had limited access to any towns, internet, tv, or phone service.
I also got the opportunity to travel around with other volunteer friends of mine quite a bit on the weekends as well. We went to several beaches in a few Pacific towns as well as one Caribbean town. I also climbed an active volcano, and went horseback riding, tubing, on a zipline canopy tour (!!), and to hot springs.
It was great to be able to utilize the public bus system right alongside the locals and to be able to negotiate our way to different locations and deals everywhere we went.
Systems don't work the same way in Costa Rica as they do in the U.S., and it was exciting (and scary) to have to figure out everything on the go, with a backpack on my back.
About the culture: Costa Ricans call themselves "ticos" and they are totally laid back. It is such a shock to arrive in a country where people just aren't WORRIED about things. They go to bars almost every night, they take naps whenever possible, and they always say "tranquila" (calm down) to people (me) who are too preoccupied with something that they think doesn't matter.
Beyond being relaxed-they love futbol (soccer) a lot and are intent on living the good life. They eat white rice and beans with every meal, as well as (sometimes) some meat and sometimes "salad" (tomatoes, cucumber, and possibly lettuce). The national slogan of the country is "Pura Vida", which means pure life. At first I kind of thought Pura Vida was just some sort of a marketing term to attract tourism, but the longer I spent with the Ticos, the more i felt pura vida to be truth.
Honestly- pura vida infiltrated my every action. Even after just two months I'd say im much more relaxed now, and much more able to take on new challenges without worrying as much. I believe in the concept of Pura vida more than anything else, and I believe in seeking it in whatever way possible. I think that is what it is supposed to be. I'm really happy to have learned about it through experience. So interesting.
Also- Guanacaste, the province that I lived in, makes the majority of its money on tourism. Tourism is a BIG deal there, and many people aspire to get jobs in tourism because they pay better and they are rather abundant. The tourism extends from the beautiful beaches, to the volcanoes and the endless miles of national parks that the country (and Guanacaste specifically) has to offer. Most of the locals think the tourism is great (because it gets them money!), but many others really resent the influx of foreigners that create need for English to be spoken and luxuries to be created in resorts and such that go way above and beyond anything that they are used to. By the end of my trip, I actually began to resent the tourism too...I just felt that my way of seeing and experiencing the country was far superior to lounging by the pool somewhere. I appreciate the income that tourism creates, but I do believe that it may be ruining Costa Rican culture, slowly but surely.
All in all- my experience with projects abroad was AMAZING and i would recommend it to anyone!