University of Washington Athletes in Matambu, Costa Rica

On Monday, May 12th, community members from Matambu, Costa Rica, watched eagerly as student athletes from The University of Washington filed out of two small buses and began unloading their belongings.  What initially caught the eye of the community was all of their fancy clothes and nice shoes- and not for the reason you would imagine.  The community wasn’t in awe of their Husky athletic gear.  They were concerned.  How was this group with the bright purple clothes ever going to finish the court?  And how were those tennis shoes going to hold up under the duress of concrete work?  

Matambu is an indigenous community in the heart of the Nicoya Peninsula.  One of only five blue zones in the world, meaning people in this area live longer than anywhere on earth.  This is due to their healthy, natural diet and physical labor, mostly agricultural.  We had an 81 year old man come out to wheelbarrow and the student athletes had a hard time keeping up with him!  With changes in diet and technology, it will be interesting to see if the future generations can remain as vibrant.

The youth in the community were the inspiration for the court and worked together with Josh Alvarez, a Peace Corps Volunteer from Texas who lives in Matambu, and the community leaders to complete the application to Courts for Kids.  There is a beautiful soccer field in the community.  However, once rainy season hits (normally in August, but this year three days before our team arrived), the soccer field is a giant, unplayable puddle.  The nearest all-year surface for playing sports is in Hojancha, which is 20 minutes by car or a few hours walking.  They were really excited for this dream to become a reality and very interested as they looked on to see if this purple clad team was up to the task.  They would find out soon enough.

The community had been slowed down by torrential downpours and the contractor abandoning the project three days prior to the group arriving.  So much prep work still needed to be done before the pouring of concrete could begin.  A cinderblock perimeter was half-finished and massive amounts of compacted ground needed to be removed from the interior of the court, due to the previous contractor setting the cinderblock perimeter too low.  The group dug in, literally and figuratively.

By the middle of the second day, enough earth had been removed from half of the court to begin and so half of the volunteers began pouring concrete while the other half continued to level, trying to stay ahead of the concrete.

As the work progressed for four days and the court was ultimately finished on time, the community realized that their fears were unfounded and this group came to work and to work hard, despite their fancy clothes.  The young men consisted of three football players, one rower, two throwers (shotput, discuss, hammer throw), and two soccer players, which meant that there was not a shortage of guys to throw around cement bags and buckets.  However, it was the young women who were even more impressive to the community, showing that they could carry cement bags and take part in the manual labor right alongside the guys.  They consisted of one soccer player, two gymnasts, one thrower, one pole vaulter, two tennis players, three rowers, and two softball players. The entire group gave everything to the court, taking advantage of every break in the rain to get as much concrete poured in as short amount of time as possible.  

The respect was mutual, however, and the Huskies also marveled at community members of all ages who came out to work daily.  This was truly a partnership effort.  The community had done a series of bingo nights, soccer tournaments, and finding donated materials and labor to make their portion of the court funding possible.  And they worked right alongside the UW group now as the concrete pouring was completed.  

The magic of Courts for Kids trips often happens outside of the court itself as relationships forge between two very different cultures.  This was made much easier by the generous host families who made room in their humble homes for our team members.  The bonds were instant and strong, despite language challenges.  Additionally, there was a talent show, a hike to a waterfall, dancing, a court inauguration, and many impromptu games which brought the two groups together.  

One of the most memorable opportunities for the group was learning about the history of the community and some of the indigenous traditions from some of the elders in the community, men and women who care deeply about preserving their culture.  The group learned to make pottery, cooked traditional corn-based pastries and desserts, watched masterful marimba playing, and listened to stories (some very intense) about the community over a bonfire at night.  

After a goodbye filled with many tears and emotions, the two groups departed, but promised to stay in touch via Facebook, a new obsession within the community over the past couple of years.  And it wouldn’t be a surprise if some Huskies make their way back to Matambu in the near future to check in on their friends and new family. – Derek Nesland

“The community was so welcoming and it really helped me be able to step out of my comfort zone and really take in the full experience.  I enjoyed conversing and playing with all members of the community, I have made a lot of friends here just by the simple actions of reaching out and putting myself in their shoes for the week I was here.  I will forever remember the cultural experiences that I saw and learned here, the food, the language, the pace of life, the daily rituals, the unity and friendship shared between families and the love.  

I loved learning about the pottery and the baking class and listening to the locals tell/share stories and ways of life.  The waterfall was such a beautiful experience and getting to live with my host family and be welcomed and cared for by them right from the get go is something extremely special and makes me feel so good inside thinking about it, because these people are so caring and loving without having a portion of the lifestyle I’m used to.

The most difficult part about going back to America will be leaving all the beautiful people and experiences that I made here behind.  I made so many friends and it’s going to be very difficult leaving that behind.  Kennan, Julia, Ana, Laura, Armano, Jeremy, Jose…just a few to name are all people who will hold a very special place in my heart.  The best part; however, is knowing that I can leave a piece of my heart here in the sport court knowing I helped create a space for this community’s peace and love to thrive and carry on.  I hope I can come back one day and visit this beautiful community again.  Pura Vida, muchas gracias, Matambu.  Te amo.” – Lexi Prokopuik

“I have always been afraid of change and stepping out of my comfort zone so I forced myself to participate in Courts for Kids knowing that it would be a great experience.  I honestly feel like this journey has helped me grow and be less afraid to do things that make me uncomfortable.  This trip has opened my mind and humbled my heart.” – Pascale Dumensil

“I learned that I could actually communicate with the people of Matambu even though I only know limited Spanish.  Also, if I really take the time to get to know people that are at some point strangers you begin to care for them and really enjoy their company.  I also learned that this experience really shapes my perception of Costa Ricans and foreigners in general.  I cannot make any assumptions until I really live and experience those that are different than me.” – KJ Carta-Samuels

“I more clearly understand the strengths and triumphs of other people around the world.  They live a more simple life but it is also much more complicated.  They don’t travel as far but make do with the resources they have.  It is early mornings and long, hard physical work days that allow them to survive.  Despite the toil they are content and love their lives and heritage; always willing to share and offer kindness.  I will regard hard labor in a more prestigious light and have gained a newfound appreciation for indigenous people and the work they do.  I won’t look at other countries as tourist destinations but as homes and livelihoods of other people.” – Carey Campbell

“I feel like this community taught me so much and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I learned that sometimes less is more.  Many of the people in the community don’t have much, at least compared to American standards, but the people in this community are genuinely happy and content.  They have such a positive and relentless attitude that spreads to everyone around them, but stay humble and grounded which is something so special.  They also reminded me that regardless of race, nationality or religion, we are all human beings that are caring about their families and stranger alike.  They’ve given me a new perspective of what it means to be grateful and caring.” – Michaela Nelson

“I learned a lot from the community about how you can have so much even when it seems like there’s so little.  They are so self-sustaining with everything they do and it really shows how much the consumerism and materialism back home is out of control.  Here they really value family and community and the personal relationships, and I knew this before, but it really showed this week that when people come together and work together there’s something really special about it.” – Robin Stephenson

“I have been lucky enough to have been exposed to cultures such as the one in Matambu and actually taken classes about indigenous people in Latin America.  But experiencing it for myself, and seeing it with my own eyes has made me see all those things better.  Less is more.  This is a big one for me.  I just think there are many negatives to capitalism.  Always wanting more.  But when is it enough?  I think here in Matambu is enough.  Yes, it would be nice to have wifi and service, warm water, HD TVs all over.  But they care about each other, the love, their family.  There is a sense of community that you don’t see in the states.  They dance, they sing, they pray.  When we were listening to the story of La Mona, I saw a dad just kissing and loving on his son.  What really matters?  They have their own special, unique cultures that we should appreciate.  In a way I felt bad for them coming in, but there are some things that they should feel bad about for us.” – Julia DePonte