Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Liz Bergin - Costa Rica

Elizabeth Bergin is a senior at the University of Utah and will be graduating this year with a Bachelor degree in Environmental Studies emphasizing on Natural Resource Conservation.

As part of the Lowell Bennion Center’s Alternative Spring Break opportunities, I was able to take a course this semester which included a nine-day trip to Costa Rica. The trip was both educational and awe-inspiring. I feel truly honored to have been a part of a course that offered a hands-on introduction to important issues and trends within community development in the global south.
Our first day out of country was spent primarily traveling. We flew into San Jose, the capitol city of Costa Rica, and rode a positively bumpy route for approximately three hours to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. There, we settled into our home for the week - the lovely Hotel El Amanecer (The Sunrise Hotel) in the Santa Elena area of Monteverde.

That first evening we had the pleasure of having author Mark Wainwright as a guest speaker. Despite our exhaustion from a day’s traveling, Mark’s talk on the evolutionary development of Costa Rica’s geography, agriculture, and economy was truly fascinating.
The following day, we started out by visiting the Reserva Biològica (Biological Reserve) in the Monterverde Cloud Forest. Having come from an environmental background, I found this visit to be one of the true highlights of our entire trip. The atmosphere of the Cloud Forest was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was raining the whole time, and we seemed to be in a never ending cloud of mist. Naturally, I went crazy with the photo taking.

After our wonderful morning at the Reserve, we went on the Selvatura Park canopy tour of the Monteverde Forest area. The tour included a 13-cable zip line with a “Tarzan Swing” at the end. Our entire group participated in it, and I’m told it was a positively amazing experience. I’m not afraid to admit that I, on the other hand, was simply terrified the entire time and was very glad when it was over.

Our next two days were spent visiting local businesses and farms in the communities around Monteverde. The central focus of these visits was to provide us with an understanding of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of community-based efforts in international development.

On the first of these two days, one of the places we visited was the Vargas Family Farm where we learned about their family-based microenterprise endeavors. The farm was run by Noe, his wife Margarita, and a number of other family members who lived on the farm and shared the workload. On the whole, their farm produced a number of different crops which they sold locally, as well as homemade soap (Monteverde Natural Soap Company). As soon as I set foot on their farm I thought it resembled paradise. It was simply breathtaking.

The following day one of the places we visited was a craft store in Monteverde proper, it was called CASEM; Cooperative de Artesanas de Monteverde y Santa Elena (Women’s Arts and Crafts Cooperative of Monteverde and Santa Elena). While there, we learned about the struggles of the coop founders against sexual stereotypes, economic strains, and bad business partners; and ultimately their story of success. I found the visit to be very inspirational. Afterwards, we were able to shop in the store and purchase items that were entirely local made and thus support the local business ventures of a community developing its tourist consumer base.

Before our return day of traveling, the last three days of our trip were spent in a community of Los Tornos. It was a small town, approximately 190 people. The work we did there was to be our culminating experience in Costa Rica, as well as be our service work for the Alternative Spring Break trip. The project was to repaint the Salon Comunal Los Tornos (Los Tornos Community Center).

After arriving in Los Tornos, we met some key figures in the community project and visited other important buildings in the town before we assigned jobs and began working on the community center. The project was centered on painting the community center and the surrounding metal fencing, but it did involve a few small construction and demolition jobs on the side. Work was done with the help of many locals, including some school children.

After completing the community center “remodel”, the members of the community wanted to express their gratitude to us, so they threw us a party and put together a beautiful dinner. The whole community was at the gathering. It was really a very moving experience for some members of the group.

Ultimately, I didn’t view this project as being outside the community’s ability to accomplish on its own; it seems that we were able to supply it with material that they would otherwise have been unable to fund. And though I feel that there are surely more infrastructural-based, or generally life-improving types of projects that we could have been working on, I also feel as though we provided a valued service to the people of Los Tornos, however small. The trip was honestly a very beautiful and educational experience for me, and I will always remember it and the people who shared it with me.

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