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Volunteering Adventure in Costa Rica

As a young man—before I began working full-time and raising a family—I was fortunate enough to travel often, and after a 25-year hiatus, I decided to rekindle my passion for travel. Being older and, hopefully, a little wiser this time, I knew I wanted to experience more of a country and its culture than is normally experienced during a typical sightseeing vacation. Once I began investigating opportunities, my research led me to a New York company called “Cross Cultural Solutions” which sponsors volunteer opportunities in various parts of the globe. To give it a try, I signed up for a one week “insight abroad” program and chose Costa Rica as the destination.


My preference and expectation was to work with kids who have disabilities. My teenage son is autistic, and like any parent would, I had developed skills in this area. I was somewhat surprised to learn, two days before my departure, that I was to work at an HIV clinic in Cartago, Costa Rica, building an organic garden. It was rather far afield from what I had indicated on the very thorough questionnaire they had me submit, but I thought that if that’s where they needed me, that’s where I’d go.

Like many, I’m familiar with the facts of HIV, but haven’t had a lot of direct contact with people in the advanced stages of AIDS. After working in the garden and swinging a pick ax for several hours a day, I spent time with the residents. We talked about life, politics and their own situations. It was up to the patients whether they wanted to mingle with the volunteers and it usually depended upon on how much energy they could muster.  Everyone in the clinic was quite weak and was there to recuperate.


I was struck by one gentleman in particular who I conversed with daily. His name was Fernando and he was a very distinguished-looking older man of what I guessed to be about 65 years old. Fernando spoke of the years he spent as an owner of a restaurant/bar on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Although most of our discussions needed a translator, the conversation flowed. He told me of a cross-country bicycle race he competed in as a young man, and won, and he spoke fondly of his departed wife. On the last day of my assignment I found out he was actually 81 years old. I think his innate, gentle nature and aristocratic bearing served him well. Unlike others, he never mentioned how he contracted the disease.  


Surprisingly, several of the residents weren’t reluctant to talk about their situation. One man had lived a sexually irresponsible life and spoke with surprising humor of his misperception that the disease would never strike him. Another woman, a housewife, was unfortunately infected by her philandering husband.


The star of the clinic was Carolina, a little girl barely over one year old that stayed with her mother, a patient at the clinic. For whatever medical reason, they could not determine if Carolina was infected or not until she was 18 months old—and an unspoken hope existed in all that she would be spared the consequences of this terrible illness. They still didn’t have the results when I left.

In addition to the satisfaction we received from building an organic garden and providing the residents with fresh, healthy vegetables, I made some friends and I think I made a small, positive difference in their lives. On my last day at the clinic, everyone gathered to present me with a memento for my efforts; a small wooden building façade to represent the clinic. A long speech in Spanish accompanied the gift and a card, signed by everyone. I was quite touched at their overwhelming appreciation which was not just for my hard work but for my understanding.

A volunteer vacation is not for everyone, but if you’re not afraid of hard work and want to see a country from the inside out, it’s an incredible adventure. I’m sure much of the enjoyment I experienced had to do with the Costa Rican people I met and their wonderful outlook on life. The quality of the program was also a major factor. One week is a good way to evaluate if this is the type of adventure you want, and so for my next visit I’ll almost certainly spend more time. I was able to do a little sightseeing in the three days before my assignment began, but I wish I had scheduled an additional three or four days to see more of the country.


If your idea of travel to another country includes getting off the beaten path and experiencing what life is really like away from the hotels and beaches, a volunteer vacation might be a something for you to consider.

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