Combine Travel, Language Learning, and Volunteering in Costa Rica
After leaving my job in the fall of 2005, and at the age of 45, I went abroad to volunteer after thinking about doing it for what seemed forever. Assigned to work in an orphanage in San Carlos, Costa Rica, through Cross-Cultural Solutions, the first days were chaotic. The children had enough energy to dribble a thousand soccer balls. There were three of us volunteering at the orphanage that accommodated 12 children from two months to 10 years. Fortunately, my two colleagues could speak Spanish. Eventually, the children taught me necessary vocabulary. And some things require no language. Every day when I arrived at my work placement I was greeted with smiles, shout outs, hugs, and kisses.
Within the first week, I fell into a rhythm, enjoying the companionship of my mostly younger colleagues. Meaningful conversation substituted for TV and computers. We talked about our placements, our families, books, movies, and our love of and desire for travel. I realized that a natural bonding occurs among people choosing to volunteer, bridging chasms of age, occupation, and geography. I made lasting friendships with several volunteers. We traveled together, laughed together, and cried when it was time for one of us to leave.
The orphanage in San Carlos receives one-third of its funding from the government with the remainder coming from the community. The children are there because their households have been deemed unfit or violent. Some children simply have been abandoned. While at the orphanage, we kept the children busy with games and activities and occasional instructional support—giving them love was most important.
Enrollment forms asked for background, experience, and interests and were used to determine volunteer placement. Spanish classes as well as dance classes, guest speakers, and fieldtrips were part of the cultural programming included in the fee. Many organizations offer combination volunteer/travel and volunteer/language immersion programs (see sidebar). Fees vary greatly and depend on country, length of stay, type of accommodation, predeparture services, and in-country support services. Roundtrip airfare is not usually included in program fees. I relied on the Internet, and this magazine, Transitions Abroad, to help sort out the possibilities.
I chose Costa Rica because I had never been to Latin America and wanted to get a taste of this part of the world. From my readings, Costa Rica was described as possessing rain-forest beauty, friendly people, and a stable government. I wasn’t disappointed. Ticos are genuine souls with smiles like sunshine and their country is a vision of poetic enchantment: gurgling volcanoes, towering waterfalls, lush cloud forests, and tree-lined beaches.
Our volunteer placements were all in the morning with afternoons for Spanish lessons and cultural perspectives programing. Placements varied from teaching English in the schools, assisting in a nursing home or elder center, supporting teachers in special education classes, working with disabled adults, or helping at the orphanage. There were also opportunities for additional volunteering activities in the afternoons, which generally meant teaching English.
On the weekends I traveled with other volunteers to beautiful beaches and popular hotspots: Playa Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio, Playa Caihuita, Montezuma, and Monteverde. We often hired drivers and split the travel cost that could be as low as $20 or as much as $50 per person. Public transportation was available to most places, but since we were expected at our placements Monday through Friday we generally elected the more expensive but less time-consuming private vans. Food, drink, and hotel accommodations are inexpensive. Great meals could be had for under $10. Beer, delightful jugo and refrescos (juices and fruit drinks) were about a $1, and we stayed at no-frills but clean hotels for less than $20 per night. Two of my favorite weekend excursions involved watching the U.S.-Costa Rica World Cup Soccer Qualifying Match and traveling by boat to Tortuguero to witness the giant green turtles lay their eggs at night.
This experience of volunteering, traveling, and living abroad made me hungry for more. Life slows down measurably in a place like Costa Rica. There are fewer distractions and an authenticity and simplicity in daily life that comes about effortlessly!
Volunteer Placement Programs
Cross-Cultural Solutions offers intern and volunteer experiences from 1 to 12 weeks in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1995 and is not affiliated with any political or religious groups. www.crossculturalsolutions.org.
InterExchange Working Abroad provides U .S. citizens with volunteer, teaching and travel abroad opportunities in Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Chile, China, India, Thailand and many other countries: www.interexchange.com/workingabroad.
Global Volunteers has been around since 1984. It offers 1- to 3- week volunteer community development programs: www.globalvolunteers.org.
Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization, offers volunteer vacations in Peru, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cuba, Nepal, Brazil, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam: www.globeaware.org.
123TeachMe is a directory of independent Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese language schools: www.123teachme.com.