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Volunteering in Costa Rica: A Senior's Rewarding Experience

A volcano in Costa Rica.
A volcano in Costa Rica.

The drums guide us down the dark forest trail to the shaman’s temple on the Huetar Native Reserve. Juan Sanchez, the son and grandson of tribal shamans, welcomes us to his beautiful large roundhouse. Each ridge pole, beam, wall section has significance; all are precisely placed to symbolize days of the week, compass directions, seasons of the year, and more. He describes how he uses various natural herbs and minerals to heal human ailments, but he cannot conduct a healing ceremony tonight as it is not the correct time of the month. Later, we go outside to look down over sparkling San Jose and up at the sparkling night sky. It is a magical evening in Costa Rica.

My sister Jean and I are in Costa Rica as volunteers under the auspices of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, run by dynamic former Peace Corps volunteer Gail Nystrom. She offers opportunities for insight into aspects of “Tico” life for her assorted volunteers, of whom we are by far the oldest. Our shamanic evening is only one of several extra-curricular activities we enjoy. Gail arranges for our home stays and chooses projects that best utilize our interests and skills. Most of my many previous foreign volunteer projects have been as part of a group working together. This individualized approach is far more to my liking.

A Costa Rican Family Home Stay

Home stay with my family in Costa Rica.
Home stay with my family in Costa Rica. Photo by Dorothy Conlon.

We volunteering sisters have settled in easily with our warm Tico family, despite great language gaps. Our Spanish is minimal at best, but my ever-handy dictionary along with gestures and mime help to provide basic communication, as does simply smiling. AnaLia is a widowed mother of eight grown children, all of whom live in and around this village of Pozos, a suburb of Santa Ana, which is in turn a suburb of the capital, San Jose. Her 87-year-old mother, wizened Dama, lives with AnaLia, and now Jean and I do as well.

Two of AnaLia’s daughters live with their families in adjoining homes under a shared roof. No day passes by without other family members stopping by, often joining us for a meal. Jean, who is missing her grandsons, delights in the frequent presence of the various young children in this family. 8-year-old Arianna or 9-year-old Paco love to lure us into a card game. Son Erick, a slim, sharp waiter, speaks such good English that we can use him to relay any plans or requests we have for AnaLia. Her brother Olivier, a big teddy bear of a man, comes by often; is it because we are there? A tailor, he even whips out a needle and thread one day to mend my red shoulder bag which has a tear at the end of the zipper. We feel adopted by this wonderful family network right from the start, even without a common language. They find it hard to believe that Jean and I see each other only a couple of times a year; they don’t realize the distance between Florida and Vermont. All the members of this family are in constant close loving contact.

AnaLia’s single-story house is modest, with linoleum floors and many glossy religious posters covering the unfinished walls. In the kitchen area is a refrigerator, electric stove and a microwave. Morning coffee is excellent, filtered through an old-fashioned cheesecloth funnel arrangement similar to what I remember my mother using to strain homemade apple or grape jelly. Our hostess does our laundry for us and cooks all our meals, which are basic—plenty of beans and rice, cheese and eggs. The corrugated roof shakes and rattles in high winds at night, but the warmth of our welcome compensates. Tall Jacobina bushes with their flamboyant red blossoms line the short lane between our front door and the main road. 

The Volunteer Experience

During our first day of our orientation to the area, we are taken to meet the director of the government Home for the Handicapped where we’ll start working half-days. Located on spacious beautifully landscaped grounds, the low-lying buildings are very clean and well-kept, a model for other such facilities throughout Central America, we are told. The following morning we report there, wondering what exactly we will be doing, and it turns out that they are wondering the very same thing.

About 30 residents at The Hogar — of all ages — have a range of disabilities, both physical and mental. Many have lived here for years if not most of their lives, while a few are here for temporary rehab. While we are wandering around, big handsome Armando, a short-term resident, announces to us, “I’ll teach you Spanish.” We certainly can use such lessons, and our work at The Hogar begins each morning with language class. Armando is actually Mexican and has lived in Dayton, Ohio and Miami, Florida. No wonder his English is so good.

As we observe the daily routine of the Home, we each find roles for ourselves. Jean, impressed with their huge greenhouse, quickly offers to start a garden in a large barren raised planter between two of the residential buildings. During her two weeks here, her Friendship Garden of both flowers and herbs slowly takes form with the participation of staff and residents alike. Even if wheelchair-bound, they can reach out and weed or plant tiny seeds. They love the project. Diminutive Ilena, who has fine black braids and a twisty smile, becomes Jean’s special friend.

With no such green thumb, I offer to teach yoga, and a group of staffers gathers occasionally for a lesson. But my most satisfying activity is wandering among the residents on their gurneys or in their wheelchairs. Unless they are in the therapy room, they simply hang around, passing time between meals. I learn their names and talk with them, both in English and my smattering of Spanish. If they are interested, we do simple arm, leg or head movements, according to their capacity. Sometimes I help feed them or wheel them to an activity. They need and love the personal attention; spoken language is unimportant.

Juan Antonio, lying on a gurney, always in the same spot in the hallway, was paralyzed in a diving accident five years ago when he was fifteen, and has lived here ever since. His black hair is long, his smile hesitant. We can converse a little in English while I hold his hand or stroke his shoulder. Broad-shouldered Angel, with a strong face, wheels himself all over the place, keeping an eye on everything that is going on. My favorite is Luiz Fernando, a handsome 40-year-old afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He visited New York once, and we could converse in English, except that he is barely able to speak at all. His eyes express his feelings. Mostly paralyzed from the waist down, he still enjoys doing simple arm and head and finger movements at my direction. One time he also wiggles a toe — which I had believed was totally paralyzed — and smiles to see my surprise.

Volunteer with a patient
Spending time with a patient. Photo by Dorothy Conlon.

Jean and I are greatly impressed with the staff members — from gardeners and cooks up to the head nurse and physical therapists. Although some of the aides I talk with have worked here for 30 or more years and might well feel burned out, they always come to work with great enthusiasm, and they pass on that good cheer and love to the residents, who have reason to be depressed. Spending each morning in this atmosphere, instead of being a downer for us, is an inspiring experience.

Election Day

Costa Rica’s national election was held just a few days after we arrived. We had heard electioneering loudspeakers from passing trucks, and seen signs for the presidential candidates. There are three — most unusual. Now it is Sunday, and we are lucky to be right in the midst of the festive atmosphere at a nearby school — the only gringos in sight. All of “our” family comes, of course, even the kids much too young to vote. Neighbors greet neighbors, old friends greet old friends; it is noisy, a real social gathering. You can tell who has already been through the organized line, been qualified and finished casting their vote inside, because one of their fingers is inked blue for identification. Perhaps a higher percentage of US citizens would vote on Election Day if it were held on a weekend and was such a joyful community affair.

An Excursion

Most North Americans know Costa Rica for its national parks and for being so peaceful that it has no army. 25% of the total area of this tiny country is protected habitat. We two are eager to see the country for ourselves. It is Jean’s final weekend and we have arranged an excursion to Arenal, the most active of Costa Rica’s 111 volcanoes.

Miguel, who is at once delightful and knowledgeable, picks us up in his new little Daihatsu and acts as our driver, guide, and host for the weekend. His son, 4-year-old Miguelito, livens things up during the 5-hour drive northward. En route, we stop and watch coffee-pickers at work and take a lunch break in San Carlos. The roads, while mostly fine, are serpentine, through beautiful mountainous countryside in many shades of green. Finally reaching Miguel’s small B & B, “Cerro Chato Lodge” outside La Fortuna, we meet his wife Carmen and admire a perfect view of the symmetrical Arenal volcano, at least on those rare moments when the clouds lift.

Miguel arranges for me to go by horseback to the top of the trail leading down to spectacular La Fortuna waterfall. Jean, whose hip has been bothering her, goes by car. In the past couple of years I have ridden both camels and elephants, but it’s been 50 years since I have ridden a horse. Is it foolhardy? It turns out to be easy and pleasant, and walking down the steep trail is also smooth, with the help of a handrail. The view is different at every turn. I decline a dip in the cold pool at the base of this 230’ high waterfall.

This weekend, which also includes a hot springs visit, close-up views of Arenal emitting little puffs of steam, and shopping, is so much richer than a typical commercial tour, thanks to our guide, Miguel. “Listen me,” he likes to say, prefacing some fact or story to augment what we are seeing and doing. Thanks, Miguel, for giving us so much insight into and feel for your wonderful homeland.

Costa Ricans proudly say, “Pura Vida.” Much more than its literal translation —“Pure Life”— this phrase is used freely and has many meanings, but essentially reflects a sense of joy Ticos feel while living day-by-day in this tropical oasis. After only three weeks in Costa Rica, I feel right at home, and enthusiastically echo “Pura Vida to you.”

For More Info

See the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation for more information.

Dorothy Conlon is an octogenarian globe-trotter who, often traveling alone, explores destinations that are well off-the-beaten-track. Combining personal travel with volunteer/service learning experiences, she has ventured from the far reaches of the Amazon to Africa, Asia, India and many other locations.

Related Topics
Volunteer in Costa Rica
Senior Volunteering
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