How is my daily life being a volunteer in Costa Rica?

Time has been flying and a month has already passed since I arrived in Costa Rica. At the same time, it feels weird that I have only two weeks left before I hit Brazil for the next volunteering experience, but then again, I feel like it’s been quite a while since I took my first steps on the Costa Rican ground. Many things have happened since my last post but I have just not had the energy to write my thoughts down here as volunteering and living abroad can sometimes be very consuming as you could read from my previous post. Since that post, I have put a lot of effort into organizing my weeks in a way that I have enough time to reflect and do things that I enjoy to balance the disappointments related to the volunteering experience. So, in addition to volunteer work at the kindergarten – yes, I am still doing it – I have been exercising, exploring other parts of Costa Rica and allowing myself plenty of time to relax with audiobooks and Netflix. Let’s see how my regular weeks here look like!

1) AIESEC volunteer work in practice

Every week, I am doing volunteer work from Monday to Thursday at the kindergarten. After preparing and eating my oatmeal-berry-nuts breakfast (there needs to something that reminds me of home, right?) I walk 2 km to the kindergarten and start my day there at 9 o’clock. Each morning at the kinder starts the same way, with some games and energizers, certain religious jingles as mentioned in my previous post and singing the Costa Rican Flag Anthem. I’ve been playing along when doing the energizers but for the religious parts and the Flag Anthem I have chosen to respectfully opt out and just observe. I learned that even though I have spent quite a lot of time abroad during my 29-year history and living in Finland has not always been my first choice, I am still being that much patriotic that having my hand on the heart when hearing the Costa Rican Flag Anthem like the locals have, does not feel right for me even though I should be showing example for the kids. Well, I guess I’m showing now an example that it is okay to respect your origins and not to do things you are not okay with.

After the morning assembly, it is time for activities in the classroom and, as soon as the kids finish their work, time for playing with the numerous toys at the kinder. As the kids are still on their summer vacation from school, they’ve been mostly colouring pictures and cutting and gluing things during the class instead of studying specific topics. The children being between ages of 2-12 years, some of them do not know yet how to handle scissors, which has meant that I have been cutting more pieces of paper during this month than probably in the past 29 years altogether. In addition to this, as it is the beginning of the new school year, I have been covering notebooks with plastic, gluing name tags here and there as well as decorating binders. Using more than half of my time during several days on this kind of manual work that does not teach me anything has been disappointing, so I have needed to clearly express I would prefer working with the children instead in order to improve my understanding of how to do it. Luckily, finally this week I had more chances to support the children in their work and play with them instead of being stuck with cutting and gluing on my own.

Around midday the children go to have their daily session in the chapel and, meanwhile, I enjoy a delicious lunch – typically rice, beans and meat in some form. Luckily, the food poisoning I mentioned last time was a one time thing after eating fish so I have been able to stay healthy since then and the food has been really good. After eating, I help to serve food for the children, clean the kitchen and then we’ll play outside together and have another classroom session like in the morning. Around 3pm it’s time for me to find somebody to open the gate and let me out so that I can put my headphones on and walk back home listening to books or reggaeton.

2) Afternoon chillouts

On my way back, I might drop by a supermarket, bakery or a fruit store to buy snacks like apples, avocado and fresh bread. There are not many gigantic supermarkets here but instead you find a plenty of small stores that are specialised in anything between chicken and fruit. I get home, eat my snacks accompanied with a daily dose of learning Portuguese (for Brazil) with Duolingo, get changed and hit the crossfit gym that is not further than 100 meters away. After an hour of sweating, I crawl back home using the last drops of energy and take a bath with one of those showers that makes you choose between high pressure or hot water. I always choose hot water.

The rest of the evening is normally chill-out time watching Netflix, reading, having dinner and playing with the son of my host family. Every now and then there are also some AIESEC activities or volunteer get-togethers which I attend whenever I feel like that. I love having my own time after a hectic day at the kinder, though, so many times I prefer skipping a party or activity and enjoying the calmness of my own room. Approximately once a week it’s also the laundry day, but only if the weather is good enough as you will never get your clothes dry if it is not sunny. Trust me, I tried and it took an entire week to dry the clothes as it was raining every day and the lack of heating in the houses makes every place and every piece of textile humid. Still, only once so far I have been in a situation that I used all pieces of clothing before I was able to do the laundry.

3) Weekend getaways

Costa Rica is a small country covering only one seventh of the area that Finland does. Hence, it is rather easy to get from one place to another by bus even though sometimes the traffic jams or mountain roads make it very slow and you might end up using 1,5 hours to cover the 20 km distance between e.g. Costa Rica’s capital San José and my town Cartago. Well, the early bird catches the worm, so I have now gotten used to the idea that if I want to travel further than to San José, I need to get up around 4am to catch a morning bus to San José and from San José to anywhere else. In 3-5 hours from San José you can reach almost any corner of the country. As the Fridays are off, I have plenty of time to explore Costa Rica.

Waking up early on Friday mornings has been well worth it as I have so far had the chance to explore the national parks of Manuel Antonio and Monteverde during the last two weekends. As I’ve been slightly down and the volunteering experience has not gone the best way possible, wandering around the trails of both national parks for several hours has allowed me to not only enjoy the scenery and meet animals like a sloth and monkeys but also to have the needed time for my thoughts. To counterbalance the calming days in the national parks, I had to get a real adrenaline rush by doing some extreme sports while being in Monteverde: canopy, rappel and Tarzan swing. I totally loved it!

The best part of escaping my daily routine has still by far been having the opportunity to meet likeminded people. In Manuel Antonio I was having a dinner alone while another girl arrived to the table beside. We joined forces and had a great dinner together enjoying the sunset view and sharing our travel stories. The other day I had a philosophic conversation about dedicating one’s life to only making money with an American music producer.

As you can see, the every day life here is not that different from what you are probably used to. In the end, we are all very similar and have same basic needs. However, a solo traveling lady I met in Monteverde summarized spot on why it can be very exhausting to go backpacking or to settle down abroad: When being in an environment you don’t know from before, you need to decide on everything – where and how to go, where to get accommodation, where to eat, what to do, is it safe enough, etc. Furthermore, you often have very limited sources of information (mostly the experiences from other travellers) to do that. In a foreign environment, there is no routine that saves you from these decisions like at home and, hence, you need to put a lot more energy in just doing the basics. When you add a foreign language, people you don’t know and different cultural norms into the mix, it is quite a lot to navigate through.

Sometimes after a day of traveling I feel like this slow-moving sloth that I saw in Manuel Antonio.

Realizing this, makes me even more convinced that making self-organized trips or living abroad is an excellent way to practice skills that are essential also in working life like the skill of leading oneself or sometimes a team till the next leg even though you don’t know yet what is waiting ahead or how to get to the final destination. Do you see the similarity?

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