¡Pura Vida!

Before I get started, I’d like to say that this is going to be one of the longest posts I’ve ever done, but bear with me (especially if you were on the trip: stay tuned for your shout-out at the end!).

From June 20 to June 28, 2017, I took an Education First tour with my school (along with a school group from California and a church group from Connecticut) to Costa Rica. The nine-day tour took us to three different places: San Jose (the capital city), the island of Palo Seco, and finally, Fortuna, a small town in the Arenal region.

The tour was nothing like I’d expected, and it was so surreal. Our tour guide, Andrés, packed so much into single days that there’d be days where we’d do things one morning, and by the end of the afternoon, it would feel as if it happened days ago. (Our Spanish teacher, Sra. Bryk had actually done the EF Costa Rica tour two years earlier, and she said we got so much more out of it than the other group.) Before I start talking about the trip, I’d like to say that this post is based on what I wrote down at the end of every night, and it’s as objective as possible. Still, memories are subjective, so if you were on that trip, and you remember something differently (or if you remember something I didn’t), let me know! That’s what the comment button is for.

The group from my school consisted of four ninth graders (Taylor C, Zeke, Abbie, and myself), three eighth graders, (Elizabeth, Mikala, and Kevin), two seventh graders (Trish and Marissa, who is one of my science teacher’s daughters), and one third grader (Autumn, our science teacher’s younger daughter). Also, just to be clear, I’ve arranged everyone by the grade they are going into, not the one they just came out of.

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Getting ready to leave the Philly airport! (Back Row: Sra. Bryk, Mr. Campion; Middle Row: Taylor C, Abbie, Dr. J, Elizabeth, me, Marissa, and Mikala; Bottom Row: Kevin, Zeke)

We were traveling with ten other kids: Caleigh, Evan, Nick, Leidi, and McKenzie (the Connecticut group) and Mattie, Zack, Cory, Sarah, and Stephanie (the California group). The adults traveling with us included Sra. Bryk, Dr. Johnson (two of our teachers), Mr. Campion, Mr. and Mrs. Maloney, Mr. Johnson (two parents from our school plus Dr. Johnson’s husband) Sam, Kim, (the chaperones from California), and Steve and Jess (the Connecticut chaperones).

Day One: June 20, 2017

Our day started bright and early: I got up at 4:20 so I would have enough time to get ready before we met at the airport at six. (I was the second-to-last person to arrive.)

Our first flight, from Philadelphia to Charlotte, was supposed to be on time, but it ended up being late leaving the runway, which made us worry that we’d miss our flight from Charlotte to San Jose (since that flight started boarding the moment we were due to step off the first plane).

Luckily, we didn’t miss our flight and we made it to San Jose! (Admittedly, we were very late, but we made it, okay?).

After going through customs at the San Jose airport, we met our tour guide, Andrés, and we got on a bus to our hotel.

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Our arrival in San Jose! Trish, Elizabeth, and I are the ones actually looking at the camera.

I was really nervous at first about meeting the other kids: we all were. Even though we were all sitting in the lobby together while we were waiting to get our room assignments, we weren’t really socializing with the kids from the other groups. To be fair, they didn’t socialize much with us either. I think it was a combination of nerves and fatigue since we all had to get up pretty early.

In the lobby on that first day, a few of us were talking about our ideal room assignments. (On EF Tours, there’s always three to four people per room.) I was hoping to be with Trish and Elizabeth. I was nervous that I’d have to end up rooming with strangers, but that didn’t happen. In the end, I ended up with Abbie, Taylor C, and Mikala. Trish, Marissa, and Autumn were together, and Elizabeth did actually end up with the girls from California, Mattie, Sarah, and Stephanie. Zeke, Kevin, and Nick were together, and Zack, Evan, and Cory were together. The three girls from Connecticut (Leidi, Caleigh, and McKenzie) were all together.

Still, since I was with the girls from my school, I didn’t have to socialize with the other kids until much later. Andrés, our tour director, had us meet forty-five minutes before dinner for an icebreaker. We had to introduce ourselves to someone we hadn’t yet met before (I introduced myself to McKenzie) and ask them about their grade, their school, where they were from, their interests, their favorite things, their fears going into the trip, and their commitment level towards the trip. Basically, we had to glean as much information as we could in five minutes. McKenzie and I couldn’t remember all the questions, so we made up our own to ask each other. Then we mingled with some of the other kids (aside from Elizabeth, I didn’t know them, and I’d later learn their names and where they were from). We had to share what we learned about our partners with the group, and then it was time for dinner.

 

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Telling the group what I learned about McKenzie. To the left of me is Mikala, and to the right of me is Trish. Taylor C is the one who is partially cut off.

We ate a buffet-style dinner in the restaurant across the street. The kids from the Delaware and Connecticut groups sat together at one table, and the California kids sat at the other table with the adults, with the exception of Dr. J’s husband, who sat with us. I remember sitting in between Elizabeth and Trish, and across from Evan and Kevin. That is until Abbie and Taylor C stole my seat and Trish’s seat the two of us got up for dessert. We then relocated to the other end of the table, where Marissa, Autumn, and a few of the others were sitting.

 

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Dinner on the first night! This picture, of course, was taken after we’d finished eating. It was also taken after Taylor C and Abbie stole our seats. (Clockwise from far end: Trish, Mikala, Kevin, Evan, Nick, Leidi, Caleigh, McKenzie, Zeke, Elizabeth, Taylor C, and Marissa.)

We went back to the hotel after dinner, and most of us just went back up to our rooms and hung with our roommates. It’d been a long day for everyone (particularly the California group, since they’d risen at 3 am to get their flights), and we were all tired.

Besides, we’d have to get up early the next morning so we could travel to the island of Palo Seco, and no one wanted to be out too late. (There was also, of course, the fact that we had to be in our rooms at 9:30 with an absolute lights-out by 10, but that rule wasn’t always in effect, as you’ll see later.) I myself was getting up at 5 to shower, and so I went to bed at eight-thirty, the first in my room to go to bed.

That’s pretty much all we did on Day One. My school stopped at the mini-market, but it’s really no different from an American one, except for the Spanish.

Day Two: June 21, 2017

Day Two started off early so that we could travel to Palo Seco. We ended up with plenty of time to spare before we were due to arrive at the hotel, so we stopped at two shops on the way. The first store was a souvenir shop, and the second was a souvenir shop/food place. At the second shop, they opened up coconuts in front of you so that you could drink directly from the coconuts. Now, I have never been a fan of coconuts, but I split one with Elizabeth, and it was amazing! I didn’t think I’d like it all that much (hence my splitting it with Elizabeth) but it was actually really good.

 

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The coconut Elizabeth and I shared, featuring Mikala’s feet and Andres’ hands!

After that, we continued our journey to Palo Seco. We stayed in the Hotel La Isla. Once we got there, we got our room keys and assignments, so that we could get settled before we took our boat tour of the mangroves we were working in. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but as we were getting settled, we were informed that the boys didn’t have two beds and a glorified powder room masquerading as a bathroom like the rest of us. (I would like to make it known that I liked La Isla, but the rooms were way too small for four people to live comfortably in. When I sat on the toilet, my feet could touch the shower floor–without stretching!). The boys’ rooms had two bedrooms, one with two bunk beds, and one with two double beds. They even had a kitchen! A kitchen! And there were only three of them to a room.

Normally, we could’ve lived with that, but the boys were kind of immature about the whole thing. Within ten minutes of arriving at La Isla, one of the groups of boys (I won’t say which group, but they know who they are) had broken one of the locks on the doors and one of the beds.

That, in a nutshell, is why teenage boys don’t deserve nice things. (No offense to you guys if you’re reading this, but we all know that you’re idiots.)

But enough about that.

After the whole room debacle, it was time for our boat tour of the mangroves, where we’d be working. In case you’re curious, the mangroves are trees that grow in brackish water. The mangrove trees (there are over 80 different mangrove species) usually are in marsh-like areas, and they are a big part of the Costa Rican ecosystem. The mangroves are home to lots of different forms of wildlife as well.

 

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A picture I took of the mangroves during the boat tour. Beautiful, right?

However, they are falling into disarray as a result of human mistreatment and natural causes like erosion, which is where we came in. Our job was to replant and restore the mangroves on our service day (which was day three). But we’re not quite there yet.

After the tour of the mangroves, we had lunch, enjoyed some free time, and then went over the basics of our service activities. We assigned groups and group roles. The main group roles were the group leaders, photographers, and journalists since everyone was allowed to try all of the jobs that we had. There were three photographers–Caleigh, Trish, and Zack–and two journalists, Mattie and myself. Our jobs were to document everything that took place on our service day: with pictures and with words.

Once we finished going through what we had to do for our service activities, we had one last thing to do: a cultural scavenger hunt. Andrés gave us a list of over 20 questions that we had to ask five locals. Some of the questions were serious (like Who is the Costa Rican president and what do you think of him?), some of the questions were funny (like How do you conquer the heart of a girl or guy?), and others were to get us to see the cultural norms of Costa Rica. (For example, we learned that breakfast is called gallo pinto, lunch is called cosado, and the most common religion is Catholicism from some of the questions.)

After the cultural scavenger hunt, we had some free time. Most of us went down to the pool, which was a lot of fun. The guys and the girls got along for a total of five minutes while we were playing Marco Polo. Then the game slowly started to end as more and more people dropped out, and we were back to fighting each other. (I will say that when I say the guys and the girls, I’m really saying the girls versus Kevin and Zeke.) Unfortunately, we had to get out because there was lightning, so we all went back to our rooms to chill before dinner.

After dinner, we had a group-wide meeting where we went over our results from the scavenger hunt. Once that meeting was over, Andrés dismissed us, but Sra. Bryk had the MYP group meet so that we could go over our reflections of the first and second days of the trip. Then we were dismissed for real so we could enjoy free time before it was time for curfew.

Day Three: June 22, 2017

On Day 3, we didn’t need to be in the mangroves until eight-thirty that morning, so breakfast was at eight. It was nice to not have to wake up incredibly early (I got up at seven-thirty). After breakfast, it was time to get to work!

However, one thing I hadn’t anticipated was that my volunteering to be a journalist might affect what I could and couldn’t do on the trip and I was a little upset.

Luckily, my fears turned out to be for naught as I still got to work. (I will admit that I spent the first half-hour walking around and just writing stuff down, and it was terrible. I’d like the record to show that I hate getting dirty, but I jumped at the chance to not have to just sit and write.)

 

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Preparing the mangroves for replanting. 

I tried almost everything once: I helped get seedlings out of the pit so we could plant them, I planted the propagules (we all had to do at least two apiece), I raked leaves, I planted seedlings, and I helped pick up debris. Our main job was to prep the mangroves for the replanting, and then to do the replanting.

Our main job was to prep the mangroves for the replanting, and then to do the replanting. I didn’t actually take part in any of the replanting that took place that afternoon because the photographers and journalists had to make up the presentation about what we did in the mangroves. Our presentation consisted of a short overview of our work, lots of pictures, and a trivia game (shout-out to team number 2 for winning!). It took us way longer than we thought it would, and so some of us missed out on getting to pick fruit for dinner. Caleigh had gone back to pick fruit since she was done with her part, and Trish and I went to get her again because we needed her help. Because of that, she and I got to pick a few starfruits, which was really fun! Then, of course, we needed to go back because we were running out of time.

Our presentation ended up going smoothly, and the only thing I regret is not taking the time to edit it afterward. (There were a few spelling/grammar errors I didn’t notice until we were already up in front of everyone else.)

After that, we had some more free time, and so we went to the pool once more. We went straight from the pool to dinner, and after dinner, we enjoyed some more free time. That night, most of us were feeling fine, but that would all fall apart tomorrow morning. (And for some of us, that very night.)

Day Four: June 23, 2017

Day Four marked an optional early-morning hike through the mangroves. We’d all been willing to go the night before (when we were asked about it at dinner), but from what I understand, only half of us went.

Unbeknownst to us, there was a stomach virus going around that viciously attacked the majority of us. There were only a few of us who didn’t get sick, and I envy them greatly. (I’ll be kind and spare you the gory details.) I woke up at 4:30 that morning feeling like absolute crap (no pun intended) and I wasn’t able to go back to sleep. I opted out of the hike and spent the morning sleeping. I got dressed for breakfast, but I was only able to eat a little bit.

Day Four was also the day we went to Manuel Antonio National Park. Luckily, by the time we were ready to go, I was feeling well enough to go on the trip. (From time to time throughout the trip, I’d feel sick for a few minutes, but it would pass.)

I’m glad I was feeling a lot better because the park ended up being a ton of fun. We started off by going on a walk through the park, then we stopped for lunch, and then we went to the beach! (The featured image from this post is an image of the beach in Manuel Antonio). It was so much fun getting to hang out with everyone there!We also saw so many awesome things: like a monkey eating lunch in the trees, and the flora was absolutely spectacular. Even the trees seemed a lot prettier.

 

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A shot of the trees in Manuel Antonio.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty chill, since most of us were sick, and no one wanted to overdo it. It was also our last night in Palo Seco, as we were leaving the next morning.

Day Five: June 24, 2017

On Day Five, we traveled from Palo Seco to the Arenal region. It was a long, long day, and since the bus ride was so long, Andrés had a bunch of activities planned for us that day. First, we went on a crocodile tour, which was really amazing, aside from the fact that I almost dropped my phone in the water. Oh, and the fact that we literally saw a crocodile attempting to eat a turtle! It was honestly kind of traumatizing…the turtle got away, but as one of the boys (I don’t remember who but I have a feeling it was Zeke) so eloquently pointed out, it likely didn’t get very far before it died.

After the crocodile tour, we stopped at a souvenir shop. There, we got to see the factory where they do the woodworking, and it was really cool. We also got to see some of the final products get painted.

 

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The level of detail and precision that goes into these is incredible. It’s so awesome to watch.

After that tour was over, it was back on the bus, to our final two destinations: the cultural exchange and the hot springs.

The cultural exchange consisted of a few local teens teaching us how to dance the salsa, bachata, and merengue. Some of us were better at it than others. Please, enjoy this clip of Evan dancing with one of the locals. (Sorry, buddy, but you just so happened to be the first in this video, and so you were the one turned into a GIF.)

 

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I am honestly just so glad that there’s not a video of me doing this. (And if there is, I’m glad it has yet to make an appearance.)

Most of us were terrified because the majority of us could not dance to save our lives (similarly to how the kids on our track team couldn’t plank to save their lives, myself included), but it was really fun! After I danced with one of the locals (who, bless her heat, was so patient with me despite the fact that I had two left feet), she partnered me with Mikala, who is an excellent partner. (Neither of us had any idea what the heck we were supposed to be doing, but I think we pulled it off pretty well.)

After the cultural exchange, we went to the hot springs at Baldi. The hot springs were really pretty, and it was so relaxing. It was the perfect way to unwind after such a long day. The decor was beautiful, and it wasn’t as crazy as I thought it would be. It was one of the best experiences from that whole day. The two hours or so we had there flew by so quickly! After we finished at the hot springs, we checked into our new hotel, in the town of Fortuna.

Day Six: June 25, 2017

Day Six was also a chill day. We started our day off with a canopy tour through the rainforest. Some of us (cough, Autumn, cough) were absolutely fearless. Others were terrified, but nonetheless, we all powered through and we all did it! We all survived! We went on another cultural scavenger hunt, albeit one that was a lot shorter. It was still really fun, and we got to visit the town of Fortuna. Everything was really pretty, especially the church. There was also a really great view of the volcano from our hotel.

 

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The fountain outside of the church.

After the mini-excursion through town, we had to find our own way back to the hotel so that we could eat lunch and go on the chocolate tour.

We ended up having to get a bunch of taxis to get there, as our bus broke down earlier, but other than that, the ride was uneventful. The chocolate tour was really fun: our tour guide for that was hilarious, and the chocolate was amazing. (I bought four chocolate bars, and they were all incredible!) I was sad to see the tour end: it was so much fun, and so delicious!

Day Seven: June 26, 2017

On Day Seven, we visited La Fortuna waterfall, which was so amazing I can’t think of a better adjective than “amazing” to do it justice. The sights were just breathtaking!

 

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Standing in front of La Fortuna! 

We had to go up and down about 600 steps to get there. The way down was pretty easy, but the way up was torture. The way down felt as if it were five minutes, and the way up felt like five years. It was also super steep, and the next day I was pretty sore.

Still, swimming in the waterfall itself was pretty fun, even though the water was so cold that I lost all feeling in the lower half of my body after a while. It was so clear, though, and the air felt so clean. That was one of my favorite moments from the entire trip.

Day Eight: June 27, 2017

Day Eight was our last full day. We got up early to make the journey back to San Jose. One of my favorite moments from this day was actually pretty early in the day, when our (other) bus broke down. We would be stopped for a while, so we hooked up Caleigh’s phone to Evan’s speaker and had a mini-dance party on the stopped bus. I can’t speak for everyone else, but as happy as that moment was, it also made me pretty sad, knowing that this was our last full day to spend with each other.

The party bus lasted until we got a new bus. Then we settled into the old bus routine of doing one of these things: sleeping, eating, listening to music, reading, or listening to Andrés talk about the historical or cultural aspects of a certain landmark or town.

Around lunchtime, we made our way to the coffee plantation. We had lunch before going on our tour of the plantation. It was so great to see, and I also learned a lot: for example, for light roast coffee, the beans are roasted for fifteen minutes. For dark roast coffee, it’s twenty minutes, and medium roast coffee is roasted for seventeen minutes. Also, I learned that bad things will ensue if you mix an already exuberant eight-year-old and free coffee samples.

After the coffee tour, we headed to the hotel in San Jose. We had a few hours of free time before we had to get ready for the final dinner. The dinner itself was really nice, and after we finished eating, we went outside as we had time to kill before the folkloric dancing. So, we stood around talking, goofing off, and taking pictures. After a while of this, it was time for the dancing! So we all found seats to watch them. Towards the end of their routine, the dancers grabbed some people from the audience to come up and dance with them. From our group, they grabbed Evan, Elizabeth, and Nick.

 

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Elizabeth, Nick, and Evan with some of the dancers.

Once they finished, there was a dance floor downstairs and they were playing some American dance songs, so we all went down and danced until it was time for us all to go. It was so much fun just getting to let loose with everyone for one last time. Normally, I’d be nostalgic on a night like that, but on the last night, I just felt really happy for all the memories that I’d made with everyone.

We went to bed almost as soon as we got back, as our next day started pretty early.

Day Nine: June 28, 2017

We rose at 4:30 am since we had to be at the airport three hours before our flights. We ate breakfast at the hotel’s Denny’s, and then we left San Jose. Once we got to the airport, we said goodbye to Andrés and went through security.

All three groups were on the same flight to Miami. The California kids’ flight left first, then the Connecticut kids’ flight, and then our flight was the last to leave, around nine o’clock that night. We spent most of the day in the airport, playing cards, taking pictures, charging our phones, and buying snacks to get rid of our colones (or just because we missed American food).  Saying goodbye to everyone was way harder than I thought: I’m going to miss them all so much! It was also hard to say goodbye to the other freshman in our group, knowing that we’re all going to different schools once the school year starts.

 Highlights and Favorite Moments: 

  • Running into the Connecticut group literally five minutes after we’d say goodbye to them. It was crazy. We finally thought the last time we’d see them was when they left to board their flight. Then, we got transferred to their gate and discovered their flight had been pushed back.
  • Somehow managing to go through at least three buses in nine days. I literally cannot keep up at this point.
  • Making jokes about dying constantly while on the zipline, only to regret it later when we were on the bus and we started smelling gas (it was just an issue with the radiator, but can you blame us for being kind of freaked out?)
  • Staying up until 11 with Abbie, Taylor, and Mikala, and being so loud that we woke up Elizabeth, who was in the next room
  • Having a Hamilton jam session with Abbie and Mikala, driving Taylor insane
  • Spending three days trying to wash sand out of my hair (thanks, Abbie)
  • Taking a walk on the beach in Palo Seco
  • Nick becoming Mother Teresa
  • Zeke, Taylor, and Elizabeth flossing (not flossing their teeth, I’m referring to the dance move)
  • Naming all of the new buses we got

 

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The moment where Nick became Mother Teresa…

There are so many more memories I can think of, but I don’t want to keep you here all day. I’ve already kept you here long enough.

Finally, I do have something to say to my fellow travelers, if any of them are reading this: Hi guys. Those nine days were nothing but fun, and that’s partly because of Andrés and all the fun stuff he had for us to do, but that’s also because of you guys, too. All of you were so amazing to be around, and I’m glad that I got the chance to meet you all. I’ll seriously miss you all so much!

Taylor, Abbie, and Mikala: you guys were great roommates! Thanks for all the times we spent staying up laughing. I’m glad I got to room with you guys: I feel like we really bonded over the course of the trip! Mikala, thanks for putting up with my downright dangerous sleeping: I’m sorry I kept hitting you!

Caleigh, Leidi, and McKenzie: You guys were all so sweet to me! Thanks for being so easy to talk to, and so much fun to be around! I’ll miss you three so much!

Elizabeth: My favorite child. I’ll miss you so much next year. Always stay true to yourself no matter what everyone says. 

Mattie, Sarah, and Stephanie: Thank you for being great roommates to Elizabeth, and for being so sweet to the rest of us! And Mattie, I love your creativity and your meticulous note-taking. You three were awesome!

Nick and Evan: You guys were fabulous! Nick, thanks for being a great friend to Elizabeth (and to me!), and for being such an easy guy to be around–you have a great sense of humor. Evan, thank you so much for your kind words and advice about entering high school. It really did mean a lot to me.

Trish: I had so much fun with you on this trip! I’ll miss sitting with you at breakfast every morning. Thanks for being a great friend. 

Marissa: Try not to break down any more buses, okay? I’ll see you next year: try not to destroy anything! 

Autumn: No matter what, always keep asking questions and being the first volunteer. You’ll do great things if you do. 

Zeke and Kevin: I still think that you two are idiots, but I mean it in the most affectionate way. (And no, Zeke, not that kind of affectionate.) I hate to say it…but…I might even miss you guys next year. Don’t quote me on that.

Zack and Cory, the work you guys did on the slideshow was phenomenal! Thank you for all you did, and for being so much fun to work with. 

I wish each and every one of you the best, and I hope you enjoy not just the rest of your summer, but your upcoming school year as well. Please, keep in touch. I’d love to hear from you guys. 

 

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