This should serve as the final blog post for the trip to Costa Rica with Tayvon, Stephanie, Cameron, Jake, Janet, and Andrea. I am currently reflecting sitting on the plane flying from San Jose to Atlanta where we’ll catch a plane to Richmond and then drive home late in the night (I finished sitting in Atlanta waiting for the delayed flight to Richmond). As I think about the week we spent out of our element in a completely different corner of the world I can do nothing but smile. What a pleasure it has been for me to share my passions of travel and exploration with a few of the students I love and care for deeply. Over the past few years I have not found the time or ability to travel out of the country like I had in the years past, but when this opportunity arose, I couldn’t pass it up and what better way to travel than to share the experiences with others, especially those who can make a lasting impression on their peers.
Costa Rica is a country situated in the middle of Central America, home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity and roughly the size of West Virginia. While size is the only comparison that can be made with the state, Costa Rica is unique beyond any measure. Costa Rica is a nation that can’t be compared with any other I have visited in my life, and I don’t expect to ever again come across a culture or group of people that will leave such a strong impression on me like this one had. This might sound a bit pessimistic but I am open to suggestions for future travel; there is truly something special about this place.
In a previous blog where I documented my travels throughout Australia, I described a nation of people who were welcoming and hospitable like no other I had ever come across. I should go back to edit because EVERYONE we encountered in Costa Rica seemed to be there to help us in any way possible. From Tony and Juan Carlos to the resort staffs and shop attendants, there was not a single Tico who was disingenuous. Everyone had a smile on their face and greeted us with open arms. For this reason alone, anyone could love Costa Rica, but there is just so much more it offered us so I won’t stop here.
A small country? Yes. But at no point did we feel like we had seen something again or experienced the same thing over and over. Every corner of the country had something different to do and experience. One minute we’re in the middle of a bustling city, and the next we’re traveling dirt roads to make it to the cloud forest on the edge of our seats looking over cliffs at the rainforest all the way to the Pacific coast. I realize we only saw a small fraction of the country, doing a loop around the Arenal Volcano, and yeah, we never got to go scuba diving or surfing or feed crocodiles but like I’ve done with previous trips, I think of these experiences should be saved for the next time. Trust me, every one traveling with me plans to come back. Regardless of future plans, we still managed to accomplish a lot and experience things many people will never get a chance to even try during their entire life. Eating exotic fruits for the first time, zip lining, sitting in a bus hugging the edge of a cliff at risk of breaking and turning into a land slide, learning to salsa dance, and drinking some of the finest coffee in the world are only a few of the experiences we had. We did a lot.
Most Memorable Moment
On the last night in Costa Rica, during our final meeting, we went around the group, person to person, sharing what it was that we liked most about our week, an easy question for some but honestly I struggled until it hit me when I felt a rush of emotion throughout my body. I could say traveling through clouds and rain on a wire overlooking surreal terrain was my most memorable memory or even facilitating student discussions to develop hypotheses about bats and the dispersal of seeds, or any of the scientific explorations that put me in my teaching element I love so much. The truth is none of these experiences and memories were my favorite.
We came to Costa Rica to immerse ourselves in a different culture and explore the vast biodiversity the country had to offer as we all developed our global perspective along with an appreciation for what lies beyond the boarders of Hampton, Virginia, the United States and even our continent. The truth is we achieved this and I’m confident the students can pass on what they learned and use the anecdotes of the trip to spread a sense of ownership for our actions in the community and in the broad sense, on this planet. Even this accomplishment, as important as it was for me to see in these students, was not the most memorable part of the trip.
Truth be told, my favorite part of the entire trip was the few hours we spent at the traditional Costa Rican house. Not what many of you reading this might expect me to say but something happened as a result of our experiences there. Growing up, some of my most memorable times were spent in the kitchen with my mother cooking up whatever was on the menu for the day. We could accomplish anything together under her tutelage, lamb burgers to baked fish, buckeye cookies to apple crisp, and breakfast sandwiches for dinner to new inventions that just seemed to pop up in our heads. The results of our hard work and sometimes mess were always shared as a family with dad and Kevin. I cherish and love my family and will always value the time I spend with them.
The experiences shredding veggies, dicing peppers, making tortillas, draining plantains, and stirring goodies in the frying pan brought me right back to the times in the kitchen with my mother. This time I wasn’t experiencing this with her; instead my family had grown, now to include- Tayvon, Stephanie, Cameron, Jake, Janet, and Andrea. We shared the experiences of making a meal together and sharing the outcomes as a family on a veranda overlooking a flowing river, and to the soothing sounds of birds and rainfall hitting the broad leaves of tropical trees. I haven’t experienced a family moment in the kitchen or at the dinner table quite like this before. So when asked the question about my favorite moment of the trip, I chose a moment that gave me the greatest sense of joy- being with family and sharing a meal with those I care about. What was even better about sharing this meal was I didn’t have to clear the table or do the dishes!
I don’t know if a week was enough to develop a full understanding of what is meant in the Costa Rican culture and language by pura vida. What is meant by “pure life,” the literal translation into English? It is not just said by Ticos but it is something they cherish and hold dear in their culture as a reminder of what unites them as a people. I don’t claim to know its exact meaning, nor do I claim there is only one definition but I found myself trying to find examples of pura vida throughout the week in the actions of myself as well as my students.
This morning when helping the boys pack their bags, I came across Cameron’s carryon bag, a waterproof shoulder bag he had carried around everywhere we went. I opened it up to make sure he didn’t have anything that could be confiscated in airport security. When I opened the bag, the smell overpowered my olfactory system; it was awful. So I dumped it out to find what had died inside. What I found ended up not surprising me, having known Cameron for a few years. He had used the bag as a trashcan for the duration of the trip. Cheez-It crumbs, empty boxes and other food litter filled the bag, causing the fetid smell. Cameron had been carrying his bag not because there were things in it of importance but simply because he had a bag and used it time to time to store clothes (which were always wet) and a few personal items but mainly to keep his trash in one place. I’m sure Juan Carlos would be happy knowing Cameron didn’t contribute to the mess of the bus at the end of each day. I’m not writing this to tease Cameron but to show how he had exemplified pura vida in a way some may not realize. Cameron doesn’t care what others think of him, rather, he thinks independently, and choses to do what he does because it is right for him at that particular moment. Yeah, this was a bit gross but I commend Cameron for shrugging off the small things in life to help him focus on what really matters, his happiness.
A quick story about Cameron before moving on: This morning when inspecting the boys room prior to departing and checking out, I came across a photocopy of Cameron’s passport on the floor. Cameron had apparently found the copy in his rotting bag wet, discolored, and smelly.
He raised the alarm with Janet, telling her, “I don’t know what to do, my passport is ruined.”
She responded, “Where’s the rest of your passport?”
“I don’t know, I must have lost it.” Cameron expressed without emotion or concern for the fact he would need this important document to leave the country. Cameron did express his interest in staying but to ruin his passport to stay could never cross his mind.
Janet reminded him this is the reason why Mr. Hetrick collected the passports upon arrival in Costa Rica.
Stephanie exemplified pura vida on a number of occasions on the trip. A quiet, kind, and very intelligent young lady, Stephanie has always been one to make the most of situations, and having the ability to make friends wherever she goes. She befriended a number of other girls on the bus and always found something positive to do with her time. Humming and singing, the group could always count on Stephanie to provide a bit of entertainment, even singing “Mad World,” a song from one of my favorite movies. Always smiling, Stephanie can brighten up anyone’s day and frequently reminds me to be happy, even when I become frustrated (particularly with other people).
Tayvon exemplified pura vida as well throughout the trip. A shy young man at first, but his wit and jokes cannot be competed with! I love his sense of humor and his ability to keep up with my sarcasm; man is he quick! When the group was going zip lining, Tayvon decided after putting on his harness and helmet that he didn’t want to participate. I spoke to him to make sure he wouldn’t regret the decision later and he was confident this was a good choice for him. He had decided on his own his fear of heights would not allow him to participate. To this day he has not had a regret about this decision even partaking in conversations with the rest of the group about their experiences. He was enthusiastic to hear about our time when we arrived back and didn’t feel like he was left out. Tayvon’s ability to recognize his own limitations allows him to realize his potential and stay focused on specific achievable goals. This is a respectable trait and certainly exemplifies pura vida- being able to recognize one’s own reality.
Now Jake. Jake is an all around talented young man capable of achieving anything he puts his mind to. I had the pleasure of watching Jake grow up over the past year, seeing him mature into a more self reliant young man, being able to recognize areas for improvement in his learning and life. This week, Jake was the first of all the students on the trip (among all 3 schools) to reach out to others and start making new friends. There is no doubt he set a trend and helped others get out of their comfort zone to approach other students and start networking. His confidence is very apparent and potential unending. Jake will be able to exemplify pura vida if he lives up to the expectations he sets for himself and those who care about him.
For me, pura vida means accepting reality and being honest and open about my thoughts and feelings without compromising objectivity, as you may have seen in this blog. There is no escaping the truth; life is good regardless of circumstance and predicament. Keeping positive and open minded will help me in my future endeavors as an educational leader and life long learner, open to all sorts of adventure and challenge. I will never forget my experiences in Costa Rica and what I learned throughout the week, continually reminding myself of the Tico ways of the pura vida.
A Proud Teacher and Moving Forward
Tayvon, Stephanie, Cameron, and Jake make me so proud as their teacher and now family. They have proved themselves to be respectful, patient, and virtuous young people, worthy of any opportunity that comes their way.. They have expressed interest in sharing their experiences to help their peers become more culturally competent and understanding of others to promote diversity and a broader global perspective for all to share. The community of Hampton has an asset in each one of these students and should be pleased to know there are young people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone to experience a world beyond the confines of the peninsula in order to promote cohesive and unified community ideals. I look forward to watching Jake and Cameron finish their final year at Andrews next year and Stephanie and Teyvon make the most of the opportunities in High School. They will be successful and they will do what it takes to achieve whatever it is they set their minds to, I guarantee it.
This trip to Costa Rica was one I had been looking forward to for a while and one I will remember for the rest of my life. Since starting this post we have all talked about taking another trip next summer (we’re thinking Cuba) as a crew. We will of course be open to more students joining so long as they are willing to have fun, try new things, and make the most of whatever happens along the way. I would recommend any teacher out there to step out of their own comfort zone to provide an opportunity for students to explore the world. I am always willing to share more information to teachers interested in such an opportunity and am happy to help anyone make it a reality. Until our next trip, PURA VIDA!