Submerging into the life of a Costa Rican native is a truly humbling experience.We had the pleasure of spending the night with a local family in Pueblo Nuevo, and in exchange we helped them paint the community church and plant trees. I was lucky enough to stay with Mari and her four children, who were beyond welcoming and hospitable. It was a surprise to see young kids naturally engaged and unafraid to speak to strangers. At first, I had a reserved approach since I wasn’t sure what kind of customs and values the family had instilled in their home. Luckily, the kids made it very easy to open up, be ourselves, and share our stories. The entire family expressed such genuine emotion and kindness that we all quickly started dreading the fast approaching goodbye. We discovered that the family has grown to love hosting students and they accept every opportunity they get to participate in the volunteer tourism exchange. Ensuring that the home is ready for visitors and welcoming the guests is the mother’s responsibility, while the husband works as an electrician. The mom, Mari, informed us that they get to host students up to three times a year, and they typically stay for periods of 1-3 weeks. The students work in community improvement projects throughout the day and at night they participate in social events hosted by the town. The nightly cultural exchange is something the entire town looks forward to as they get to learn and socialize with their temporary visitors. For instance, one of the nights a dance class is hosted, where the locals and students teach each other their favored/traditional dance styles. Mari also explained that the community center where they host these nightly events was built by the volunteer students. The town takes great pride in having the opportunity to collaborate with students. It allows them to educate foreigners of their lifestyle and it gives them the help they need to build a well-rounded community.
One of the first questions that came to mind while chatting with Mari was, but what about the impact this has on her family and more specifically the way the kids are raised. Was she not worried that they might want to leave to pursue the life that these visitors describe they have? To my amazement, it was the complete opposite. She felt blessed to be able to expose her children to different cultures, personalities, and opportunities. To her this is a way to open their eyes to what the world has to offer and also a chance for them to develop their interpersonal skills. It was evident from the short time exchanged with the family, that the kids did benefit from having people like us around. Their thirst to learn new things and to get to know us was heartwarming. The eldest child, Paola, quickly asked all of us for our social media profiles to be able to connect with us even after our departure. They normalized the experience for us by quickly making us feel accepted and cared for.
It was also wonderful to experience the benefits the community has from voluntourism. We had the opportunity to see the church and eat at the dining hall that was built by volunteers. Both are structures that the town value and appreciate having. Mari, who has lived in the town since she was two years old says that they are fortunate to have the assistance of people willing to make a change. While I think this program creates symbiotic relationships, I also believe that in the long run it modifies the standard family structure and routine since they don’t get complete privacy. Perhaps this town has not done this long enough to be affected negatively.
Needless to say, this was an amazing opportunity that surpassed all expectations. It almost felt like we had not done enough for them in return. Initially, I was dreading going into someone’s home without knowing anything about them, and mostly because of the social problems that we are surrounded with in today’s society. However, it ended up being one of the best days on the trip. It was thrilling yet heartbreaking, trying to learn as much as possible from these people, knowing that we might not see them again. I personally felt lucky to speak Spanish because I feel like it would’ve changed my perspective on the experience had I not been able to easily communicate with them. I also think that because this family is familiar with hosting students it made the entire stay seamless. The space they offered us had everything we needed. I believe the community’s limited resources is what enables it to increase the volume of volunteers it attracts. If I were asked to do this again, I’d say yes in a heartbeat.