Small, pointed buildings silhouetted against a pink dawn sky. Fragrant ham and cheese empanadas wrapped in wax paper. The jolt of turns and bumps on long bus ride. Lush, tree-clad mountainside and lightly-pressing air. These are what I first remember about Costa Rica.
A collaboration between the University of Utah’s Political Science department, the Bennion Center, and the Study Abroad Office, our nine-day trip to the region of Monteverde in Costa Rica focused on community development in the Global South. Some of the themes we addressed included microenterprise, environmental sustainability, eco-tourism, power structures, and women’s role in development. The trip is part of a group of excursions called Alternative Spring Break, and it provides students the opportunity to do something unique and productive with their time off—this was all that and more, to say the least.
Our first full day in Costa Rica featured a trip to the nearby Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, or the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Wrapped tightly in our rain jackets, we embarked in small groups up the mountain to enjoy just a little of what makes Costa Rica so beautiful. Our knowledgeable guide, Jose, pointed out flora and fauna to us, including the Quetzel, one of the region’s most revered birds, and the labios ardientes, a flower aptly and humorously named “hot lips” or “Angelina Jolie” by the locals. The forest was lush, dense, vertical, green, cool- quieted by the mist and yet humming with life. I learned a lot that day, including that vines actually grow from the ground up and roots often from the top of a tree down. At the top, we stood on the Continental Divide, looking out to the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other, although we mostly saw only mist and clouds.
That afternoon, we got to see the forest from a different perspective. Attached to clips and wires, we zip lined through the forest, and I don’t think I have ever done anything more frightening or more exhilarating. Sailing through clouds and rushing towards trees, I felt like I was flying, and in a sense, I was. Seeing the Cloud Forest helped me to recognize the need to preserve and care for our natural treasures, and with about 25% of the land now federally protected, I am grateful that Costa Ricans see this too.
The next few days offered opportunities to see local grassroots businesses, including a free-trade coffee organization, an artisan paper business, a women’s cooperative called CASEM, and several family farms. The farms and the women’s co-op were especially interesting to me. The first farm we visited, belonging to a man named Noe and his family, featured many of the main crops in Costa Rica such as bananas, coffee, and sugar cane. It was cool to see these plants in their natural state and to recognize how they are cultivated from the soil, because so much of our food in the states is seen mainly in packaging or supermarkets. Noe even showed us how the coffee is shelled and dried and how sap, a thick, sweet, and grainy liquid, is extracted from sugar cane. He and his wife also make homemade soap that was lovely, and they provided a good example to us students of a successful micro business. The other farms we visited were just as lovely, peppered with hydrangeas and other flowers as well as the crops listed above, and one even had a nearby waterfall that we chanced to swim in. Again, all around us, it was lush, green, and buzzing with life.
The women’s cooperative, CASEM, was one of my favorite experiences throughout the trip. Upon arrival, the current leader of the organization gave us an introduction and some background information. Started about three decades ago, the organization began with five women and has now grown to nearly one hundred—even a few men. They produce handcrafted items such as quilts, jewelry, artwork, and clothing to sell to locals and tourist in order to make or supplement incomes. These women were inspiring because of their stories. Some of the trials they have faced include opposition from their husbands and other family members, broken promises, financial threats, and more over the past several years, and yet their triumph has been immense. They have helped to radically change the perception of women in their community, and in the process have gained a sense of their own self-worth. As one of the leaders remarked, “If I can create something that other people buy, that must mean it has value, and therefore, I have value too.” I was shocked to see that these women ever questioned their self-worth at all, but I was ultimately amazed and admiring of the support and love they exhibited to each other and us. Although I could not understand their verbal language (I don’t speak Spanish . . . yet), I did feel a bond with these women.
The final third of our trip was spent in the village of Los Tornos, Monteverde. Here, we spent our time and energy attempting to restore the local community center, a pivotal aspect of the town where weddings, banquets, parties, and even soccer games are held. Some of the jobs we performed included painting, cleaning, sweeping, washing, and of course, aiding the local women in cooking for such a large crowd. What stood out most to me about this portion of the trip was the sense of community I felt. We did not work alone; we were aided by everyone from tiny schoolchildren to the mayor. Many of us did not speak the same language, but we communicated through gestures, smiles, and collective goals. I was impressed by the way everyone came together and cheerfully worked to better the community, and in the process, served and included one another. I was fortunate enough to get the job of sign painter, and spent my efforts painting “Bano” and “Salida de Emergencia” over various doors. At one point, my sketching pencil broke and I wasn’t sure how I was going to continue to make the letters look good. Always thoughtful and observant, our bus driver, Wilson, picked up the pencil and disappeared, reappearing with a large kitchen knife in hand. While I watched with curiosity, he painstakingly shaved the pencil into a usable point, serving me in a small and yet unforgettable way. I mention this experience because it is an example of the treatment we received from each and every one of these people: kindness, thoughtfulness, help, and inclusion. We set out to serve these people, and yet ultimately, I think it was they who served us more.
The final night, a going-away banquet was held in the freshly painted community center. We ate, danced, sang, and enjoyed each other’s company until the students finally loaded onto our familiar bus to begin our trek home. I freely admit that I saw several people cry, and though not everyone did, I recognized this as a sign of the remarkable experience we had shared and the relationships we had planted. Although I learned a great deal about community development and international aid and the complexities involved and enjoyed the gorgeous landscape and welcoming air of the Cloud Forest, ultimately it isn’t empanadas or tree-clad mountains or bus rides that I will remember. Rather, it is the feeling of community and belonging that these people offered, both that of the Costa Ricans as well as the fellow students and teachers I traveled with. Kindness, pencil sharpening, meals “cooked with love,” and friendship and community: these are what I will remember last about Costa Rica.