Aphra Evans - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation in Costa Rica
I can honestly say I had no idea what to expect when I first landed in San José airport, as it was the first time I had left Europe as well as the first time I had travelled on my own. I certainly didn’t expect to be told by the first Costa Rican I’d met that my luggage was still loitering in Houston Airport. Neither did I expect to have to spend my first 5 days in the beautiful, diverse, enchanting Costa Rican rainforest, in the Tesco suit I’d travelled in.
As it turned out, none of this mattered. The volunteers laughed at my story (with me, not at me, as I like to believe); they were very sympathetic and lent me clothes and toiletries. By dinner on my first evening, I felt settled. After all, when you are living with like-minded people in dormitories in the middle of a huge expanse of rainforest - eating, sleeping, working together - it doesn’t take long for it to feel like you’ve known them for a lifetime. I still talk to the people I met in Costa Rica, and a few months on we've had a reunion in Switzerland.
Parque Nacional Barra Honda, where my conservation placement was based, is an isolated slice of paradise with little for miles except a bar (which is equipped with a pool, and which, once a week, plays host to two brilliant dance teachers), the volunteer’s living quarters and endless trees as far as the eye can see. Having lived in a large, typically English, city all my life, it felt unreal to live in a place where the iguanas easily outnumber the humans. That being said, the nights were impressively lively!
The conservation work consisted of working closely with butterflies, maintaining the park’s various trails and tracks, projects involving the bat population, monitoring the various animals’ habitats and working with the local community. Even if we had to do a day’s hard digging, it was always made thoroughly enjoyable by the staff. They were so fun, welcoming, and exceedingly friendly (trust me, the Latin lack of sense of personal space is no myth - prepare to salsa with everyone).
After one month on the conservation placement in Barra Honda, I left to work in Liberia for two weeks. I stayed with a rich farming family in the city centre which provided a sharp contrast to what I’d known in the national park. I enjoyed my journalism placement there, collecting volunteers’ and Costa Ricans’ stories about Projects Abroad’s work and witnessing first-hand all the good work the volunteers do.
The children in the schools and nurseries are so appreciative of the volunteers, but not as much as the teachers, who are often overstretched and overworked with huge classes of boisterous Latin American children - who are so friendly and welcoming it puts English children to shame.
Once in Liberia, I found myself somewhat unconsciously agreeing to teach some evening English language classes to the community. On my first day of teaching, I was enjoying watching Projects Abroad’s community class co-ordinator encourage the students to chat in English, when he left me by myself for fifteen minutes with the class. Those 15 minutes were the slowest, most daunting, fifteen minutes of my life. It was also a huge turning point in my confidence, self-esteem and maturity. But by the time the co-ordinator returned, the board was full of lists of animals, numbers, and parts of the body in my hastily scribbled handwriting! There was some vocabulary that they knew and some that I’d taught them - all I know is that the smiles on their faces mirrored exactly how I felt! There’s an immense satisfaction in teaching that I hadn’t experienced before those little community classes in that town which seems so far away from me now.
I also took some Spanish lessons, and even though I found that everyone wants to talk to you in English to practice their own (noticeably superior) language skills, it really does make a difference to each and every ‘Tico’ (Costa Rican person) if you have the respect and courtesy to speak to them in their own language.
You need only equip yourself only with the phrase ‘pura vida’ before you head out there. Translating literally from Spanish as ‘pure life’, it is a phrase that embodies the relaxed Costa Rican way of life, in a hammock under a palm tree on the beach, and can be used as a greeting, a means of asking someone how they are, or most usefully an easy way out of a sticky situation where someone expects you to speak fluent, Costa Rican Spanish.
I can tell you this because I now know volunteering is easily the best way to really get to know a country. You work surrounded by Costa Ricans all week, working towards a shared goal, a better future; while on the weekends you travel independently around the country. It really is quite ridiculous how much Costa Rica has to offer: stunning national parks, smoking volcanoes, flawless beaches, natural hot springs, exotic animals, exhilarating extreme sports, as well as more bars and salsa than you could shake a maraca at. Nothing beats placing all your trust in a rickety, questionably-timetabled bus for a weekend of sun, exploring and good times with new friends.
I would say the most important thing is don’t take my word for it: see for yourself. Costa Rica is growing ever more popular as a tourist destination and with good reason. But us volunteers didn’t think of ourselves as tourists, in fact we were positively snobbish towards them. We weren’t supporting the country by throwing money around staying in four star hotels and eating food we’re used to at home.
Instead we feasted on rice and beans and Salsa Lizano and Imperial beer and Cacique, sitting around tables in a little hut in some of the most biologically diverse rainforest in the world, lighting candles during power cuts, dancing to a badly tuned radio playing everything from Lady Gaga to merengue, enjoying five minutes rest from work when the heavens opened and the tropical rain poured down.