I have always followed the less traveled path as a result of my experiences growing up. I simply find more joy in this type of travel. This summer, I am a mentor for the GLA Spanish Service Adventure Mountain program, a combination of leadership, environmental sustainability, Spanish immersion, authentic cultural experiences, and ecotourism. Having spent so much time in Nicaragua doing Travel to Learn programs, I have not had a full Costa Rican experience and quite honestly, I have not been very keen on spending much time there. However, I have only been here a few days and already I know that this will be exactly the type of trip that will be life-changing for students and will provide for me yet another experience far removed from the typical educational travel program.
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The program is located in the South Central region of CR called Los Santos. It consists of three towns: San Pedro, Santa Maria and San Marcos. And when I say town, we are talking about 3-5 thousand people, a church, plaza, soccer field (as important as the church) a grocery store, a bar, and a soda (small restaurant). Our home base in Copey, the beautiful Cedrela (Cedar) Eco Lodge, is located about three miles uphill from Santa Maria and sits around 6,000 feet. It is at the end of the Oak and cloud forest, which begins in North America. It consists of seven cabins, staff quarters and a beautiful dining hall built four months ago. The cabins and all the furniture are built using local Cedar and Oak. The cabins range from one-floor units to three story winding staircases, balconies, lofts, and large glass windows to take in the breathtaking view of the rolling hills and valleys below. There are over 50 species of birds in this area alone and a trail that winds through the hundreds of acres of forest above and behind Cedrela. One will find coffee, avocado, and various fruit trees growing in this high elevation. The weather is not at all what I planned for with cool weather dropping into the low 60’s at night. The days are hot and the afternoon rains are cooling. In the evenings we trade flip flops for socks and shoes, cold water for a hot coffee, and a t-shirt for a warm hoody, not at all what I expected on my visit to Costa Rica.
Our international team (coming from the US) consists of Andrea, Mar and myself. Although we met on Thursday, we immediately connected and have been planning and prepping for the students as if we have known each other for a long time. They both have extensive experience in a variety of areas and together we truly create a diverse and fun team. We combine forces with a fantastic organization called Santos Tours, which in turn has a program called Green Communities here in Los Santos. The co-founders are two young, motivated, modern-day environmentalists who are truly fighting a battle here to educate people on many sustainable projects. Carlos and Jonathan both grew up here in Los Santos and have worked hard to turn a college project into an international educational program. Their goals are perfectly aligned with ours; they want to educate people about environmentally sustainable practices in a multitude of areas while providing participants with an authentic cultural/educational experience. Their role while we are here is to handle all of the projects in the community, transportation, and the various weekend trips. Although some of the adventures may sound like a typical Costa Rican experience (rafting, canopy tours, climbing up the inside trunk of a tree and rappelling down the outside, visiting volcanoes, and beach time) they are in areas that have only recently been exposed to tourism, mainly because of the initiatives of Carlos and Jonathan. These two young men educate local coffee farmers about the advantages of growing organically, not only for increased production and taste, but also for environmental reasons. It is quite possible we hit it off because they picked me up in a 24-valve Dodge truck running on biodiesel, which they make themselves. Our immediate camaraderie also could have something to do with the fact that they have a desire to infiltrate society and educate people on how to revert their farming practices to be completely organic. They see the firsthand destruction of the environment and want nothing to do with regular tourism, as it really does very little to change what is happening.
Currently, students are working on two projects. The first is to continue building a sidewalk for children who walk miles through the hills and narrow winding roads to get to school. The second is to prep eight organic coffee plots by weeding and adding compost made from the left over coffee shells. After four hours of morning work, the women from the community make all 24 students and staff a typical Costa Rican meal. After lunch, students have three hours of Spanish classes and I have to say that I have been impressed with the level of participation and willingness to learn and practice Spanish. We do have a few native Speakers and some that have been taking Spanish for over four years but even the beginners are stepping outside of their comfort zone and using their Spanish. After class, we head back to Home Base at Cedrela Eco Lodge and students have free time. After dinner we have our meetings consisting of helping students internalize leadership. We show TED Talks and other motivational videos, have large group discussions and run small mentoring groups to give students plenty of opportunities to reflect and share their experiences. The students have blown me away with their motivation to internalize leadership. They are ready and willing to learn and to change things in the world. I can truly say that although I have only been here three days with students, this experience is giving me hope for a new generation of student, one who appreciates cultures from across the world and who is open-minded enough to listen and be the change that is so desperately needed in our society.