VCU Intervarsity in Tárcoles, Costa Rica

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Bumping along a winding, green road from the San Jose airport in Costa Rica, I got my first glimpse of a different country. We were a mix of students and alumni from Virginia Commonwealth University’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship with varying degrees of Spanish-speaking ability, physical strength, and curiosity. As soon as we stepped off the bus into the small fishing town of Los Tàrcoles, our Courts for Kids destination, we could all agree that something in the air had changed. Though it was getting dark, you could slice through the thick humidity with a knife. We had been dropped off near a small, colorful rotunda, surrounded by kids and adults. Some stared at our out-of-place tour bus and others continued playing and biking as if we weren’t there. As I lugged my giant suitcase full of clothing past the small park, I wondered if people like us came through their town all the time. Were the locals excited to see our group? Wary of our purpose here? None of us had any idea how meaningful that central hub of the town would become.

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As our Peace Corps representatives, Dan and Elena, led us to a local church service that night, we were immersed in noises that would soon become familiar: tidbits of Spanish conversation, shouts of “Buenos” or “Pura Vida,” or the occasional motorcycle that seemed to speed up rather than slow down when seeing us. We were greeted into the church by smiling women who kissed our cheeks. There was no English translator for the sermon or worship songs, but we soon learned that dancing, among other things, was a universal language. We danced with the youth there, filling the night with laughter and frantic hand motions to communicate the next dance step. Something in the air certainly had changed: we had gotten our first taste of the Tàrcoles community and were eager for more. With all our excitement, finding out about our 5 AM wake-up call the next day hardly fazed us. (Hardly.)

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Every morning began with a breakfast cooked by our gracious, talented host mothers before meeting at the colorful rotunda in the park. Rather than building a new court, our task was to build on top of an old, dilapidated court, knock back the existing fence, and extend that old court 2 meters. We dove right in, with the community guiding us. From the first day, we were a team. It was evident that this wasn’t something we were just doing for the community, but something that the community was inviting us to take part in, to finish together. Despite the language barrier, we had little trouble communicating our friendship. We smiled and nodded to indicate that we had enough cement to carry, patted each other on the back and pointed to the shade to switch for breaks or waved our hands in a frenzy to let someone know to turn off the cement mixer (lovingly nicknamed “El Monstro”). We joked on one another nonstop, imitating someone’s walk or mannerisms or pointing to any person at any moment, asking them to dance or sing in front of the team. Every morning, our Courts for Kids Representative, Chris, handed out a daily challenge, which ranged from asking a local, (who called themselves “Ticos”) about the politics of the town to switching shirts with a local for the entire day. Our activities exposed us to all aspects of the town, teaching us about the education and healthcare systems. A group was even able to help paint a prenatal center, providing a safe place for young mothers.

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The workdays blurred into one another, but the moments of camaraderie with the Ticos cannot ever be forgotten. Volunteers came to the worksite every morning, whether to chat or to give us snacks and drinks. Kids relieved us from wheelbarrows or shoveling gravel with strength that rivaled our own as adults. Our host families shared touching stories about the history of Tàrcoles and all the visitors that had become family to them. When we ran out of gravel one morning, a local took that opportunity to climb up a coconut tree, starting the fruit spree of fresh mangoes, papaya, star fruit, and others that we couldn’t even name. Another morning, we spent a good hour communicating our favorite English slang terms, exchanging “YOLO” or “Sike!” for words like “tuanis” or “chiva.” We braved tropical thunderstorms on a deep-sea fishing trip. We held a baby crocodile. We exchanged drawings and dance moves with the kids. We ate more rice and beans than we’d like to admit.

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Many of us had come to Costa Rica with the notion that we would just grin and bear the hard work and count down the days until we could go back home. Those perspectives were shattered on the very first day. The laid-back nature of “Tico Time” passed quickly in the presence of those who generously shared long-standing traditions with us and so easily made us laugh. Being in Tàrcoles felt magical, while at the same time opened our eyes to the harsh realities of underserved populations. We learned to care for one another and listen to one another about hopes, fears or dreams, many of which were the same between us. On one of our last days, we visited a tourist beach as a small break from the work. As beautiful as it was, even two hours away from Tàrcoles had us itching to be back. Relief settled over the travel bus when we saw the familiar diners, houses, or the soccer field as we turned on the main street of the town. The bus was filled with exclamations of “Tàrcoles!” and “Home!” The people of Los Tàrcoles truly had become family to us and the beautiful town was one that we were proud to call home.  –Rebekah Rifareal

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“It was a blessing to just be in community and chat, interact and not worry about time. I realized that the locals are more concerned with me as a person and in the relationship than the “event, project, or meeting.” – Betsy

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“I learned from the community that there exists an interconnectedness between past and present and between people of all ages, genders, or class. I learned that their richness in history and stories of the town stem from passing on stories at their dinner table and having a deep respect for both elders wisdom and a child’s imagination.” -Rebekah

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“This trip has changed me by not constantly looking for checking the time, but rather just living in the moment and actually appreciate the things in front of us.” -Dat

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“This trip showed me what it would be like to have a long term service mission abroad. It opened my heart again to the possibility of the Peace Corps.” – Katie

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“What I learned from the community is sacrificial hospitality. Their willingness to put themselves out for the sake of others they don’t know and barely can communicate with was amazing.” -Kip

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“On this trip I found that I had a lot of time for self-reflection.  Growing up I’ve always had a love for all kinds of people, but that trait has blossomed after this trip.” -Chastity

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“I learned that you truly do not need language to love. The act of love comes in many ways and it shouldn’t be hidden just because the spoken language is not the same.” – Kelsey

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“The world is negatively affected by social media and with it, people are usually isolated. When it is absent, it’s easier to be united in spirit and lets in opportunity in for authentic relationships.” -Katie

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“I respect the Costa Ricans so much more now that I know their culture. It just took me the time and experience of having relationships with [them] to break my stereotypes.” -Hannah