Updated: Dec 9, 2020
This is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I will tell stories about it till
the day I die. In 2015 I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica thanks to a company called World Challenge. Thirty students from my college all volunteered to travel to Costa Rica to take part in the challenge which included one week helping in an orphan village just outside of San Jose and the second week exploring Costa Rica. This post focuses on helping in the village as for me it was by far the most rewarding and is what I can attribute to giving me the travel bug.
I remember our first day at the village like it was yesterday. It was actually my turn to be leader and I woke up kind of nervous. I had to try and get us to the village and work out what roles we need to do with the project when we got there. In the nerves I actually forgot to repack my bag and was late, not a good start for the leader. We had worked out how to get there the day before fortunately, finding out which bus would get us there and how long it would take. It was a pretty long walk with all of our rucksacks and none of us had really got a chance to get used to the heat. On top of this, it was all uphill, I was sweating before even getting to work in the village.
When we arrived at the bus stop, already knackered, we all kind of had to cross our fingers and hope that our research was good enough. The first bus to turn up was the one we thought we wanted, I sent my second in command for the day to ask if this was indeed the right bus, don’t know why because he didn’t speak any Spanish either, but we kind of just went with our gut on got on. This was and remains to this day one of the most fun and nerve racking bus journeys of my life. I went to the back of the bus to the standing space because I couldn’t be bothered to take my backpack off to sit down. This turned out to be a risky strategy. I did not realise that the bus journey would be around 30-45 minutes and would take us through winding mountain roads with a few scary drops on either side. Normally this would be fine, but the back door, every now and again and only on the sharpest and scariest corners, would swing wide open, forcing you to hold onto the bar to stop yourself falling out! Terrifying but really exhilarating and actually made me wake up and be like this is so cool, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. This bus ride would be the same all week and we would see a weird thing everyday. Chickens clucking away at 8am is my personal favourite. I will never forget these journeys on a rickety old bus through the mountains.
After our prayers were answered and we actually managed to arrive in the right destination, it was stunning! Nestled in between incredible mountains covered in dense forest there was a collection of houses making up a little village. But this wasn’t a normal village, this was a village filled with kids. It was like Lord of the Flies but with a few adults sprinkled in, so not at all like Lord of the Flies really, but you know it felt like it was run by kids.
Before we had a chance to really talk to the kids we got taken into what I would describe as the village hall, which was kind of like a school assembly room but with a cold concrete floor, you could see it hadn’t had a lot of funding in some time. We got told what the village was all about and what our project was going to be and it was amazing. This village was home to 8 houses of 13 orphans, all with their own ‘auntie.’ The ‘aunties’ were in charge of 13 children each and would live in the houses with 13 kids for most of their working lives. The aunties would then go into retirement but often wouldn’t want to leave the village, therefore the people in charge had decided to turn an old building at the top of the hill into a retirement home for the aunties to live in once they could no longer take care of the children. I thought this was an amazing gesture and I was proud to be part of something as kind and as thoughtful as that.
We were taken to the building and it was a mess. Holes in the roof, rust on the bars and no paint on the walls. We got straight to work, We separated into two teams, one upstairs team and one downstairs team. We started by sanding off the rust on the bars outside, a thankless task, and painting the walls on the inside, with what I can only describe as white water, because they had watered it down so much. It would require a ridiculous amount of paint to make these walls white, to add to this at 2pm everyday we would get downpours like I had never seen before, with holes in the roof this paint job was not happening. We offered to buy some new paint and maybe a sheet to put on top of some of the holes in the roof, but it was their project and when they said they were okay we tried to be conscious of not taking over their project jand ust help them.
We would go on to toil away with our work everyday there from about 9am-2pm when the rain would come then after the rain we would keep working but would often be interrupted by the kids and play football instead. We tried to show them rounders but as anyone who knows anything about Latin America, football is king. These football games were amazing and it was so fun to connect with the kids through their love and passion of the sport, you could tell these kids would spend most of their childhoods on this patch of grass. To be honest these football games were the only way I could communicate with these kids, I was young and didn’t think about learning any Spanish, so I used my limited French and hoped some words would translate as well as just keeping the chat to footballers they may have heard of, was disappointed to find out none of them knew about Sunderland AFC but we move on. I think the proudest moment of my sporting career was earning the name Messi, I think it was more for the floppy curly hair that Messi and I were sporting at the time rather than my footballing skills. But when you are playing against mainly 10-14 year old kids you do have the chance to look good. I was further helped by the fact not many of the volunteers had really played footy that much. I have so many more stories about these football games but I will save them for another time.
These children were amazing and will always have a special place in my heart. They are so resilient and able to find fun in anything. Kids in the UK today don’t always have the ability to find the fun in just booting about a can or playing with a hose, (okay boomer) but these kids had next to nothing and still spent every moment with a smile on their faces. I really didn’t think one of the funniest memories of my time in Costa Rica would be chasing two kids around the building before getting a hose turned on me and getting drenched and laughed at by everybody there. On our last day there was one child who really stuck out to me, it was my striking partner on the football pitch ‘Neymar,’ he never told me his real name. He came and gave me a hug, and I was so moved, close to tears saying goodbye, knowing I was probably never going to see him again. I had brought my Newport Qwent Dragons flag with me and decided to give it to him, he didn’t know who they were but it was a cool flag with a dragon tail on it so he was happy, I wonder if he still has it? Or remembers who we are like we remember them. I know every volunteer has that one child they remember the most and mine was ‘Neymar.’
I was sad to leave the village, we had tried all we could to do the most in the building with the tools we were given but we weren’t anywhere near done, and this upset me because I wanted to help as much as I could. It was also sad to know I would probably never see these kids again. But what really tipped me over the edge was when the kids gave us all bracelets to say thank you. I was so close to tears. I love that bracelet. I still have it, and I wore it everyday until it came off when I was in Lake Bled in Slovenia, I was lucky not to lose it in the Lake. I would have been distraught. I now keep it safe in my travel memory box.
This trip and most importantly this village changed my life. I remember sitting on the step of the building at the top of the village. Sweating from working hard and the heat, drinking a massive bottle of water, looking over this beautiful valley the village was at the top of, I knew I wanted to travel for the rest of my life. Thank you for infecting me with the travel bug Costa Rica. Pura Vida.