Just over three months ago, I flew out of London Gatwick in a flurry of excitement, tears and a lot of nerves. I was on my way to Costa Rica for 10 weeks of volunteering in natural resource management and an indigenous community, as well as a 29 day, mountain trek before setting out on my own to discover South America.
I had no idea what to expect – like most people when doing similar things – and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life (worse than the 216m bungee jump I did 2 years ago). My mind and body were both telling me a big, fat NO, but I knew, deep down, that this could very well be the making of me (- ignore the cliché, but it’s a cliche for a reason).
My first three weeks as a volunteer in Costa Rica were spent just south of the central capital, San Jose, in a private nature reserve called La Marta.
Whilst private – La Marta is owned by a Costa Rican university – funds are limited. There are only 6 rangers who are charged with managing around 1,900 hectares of dense jungle. Tourism is elemental in sustaining the reserve, a place where one can swim in clear jungle rivers, see hundreds of types of birds and insects and come into contact with a variety of serpentine creatures. This reflects Costa Rica’s high levels of biodiversity: despite only taking up 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains just shy of 6% of the worlds biodiversity.
As Raleigh volunteers, we were to help the rangers with the general maintenance of the reserve, construct new trails and repair old ones. This was all with the aims of improving tourist access to the park, of preserving the abundance of wildlife in the area and of supporting Life on Land, Goal 15 of the United Nations’ Global Goals.
And this we did eagerly – despite the buckets of rain that, unseasonably, poured down on us each day. We successfully repaired trails and made new ones – backbreaking work which consisted of digging tonnes of jungle soil on an almost vertical hillside with a pickaxe and shovel. We also – on days when rain made it too dangerous for us to work on the treacherous slopes of the jungle – cleared leaves from the farm ruins, cleaned the ranchos and the bathrooms which tourists would use whilst camping.
In addition to this, every other day at 3pm I provided English lessons for the rangers who were so unbelievably eager to learn English, making use of my recently acquired CELTA certification (something I will certainly never regret doing, if only for the experiences gained from using it in Raleigh). Whilst we looked over verb tenses and pronunciation (an often giggle-inducing exercise for all), we also conversed about our respective families and lives. In this way, they weren’t only lessons but also cultural exchanges.
One of my best moments was when Ernesto, one of the rangers, brought in a page full of sentences he wrote with the tenses we had learnt a few days previously for me to check over. I couldn’t get over his genuine dedication and enthusiasm – whereas before I was not particularly interested in a teaching career, the joy and satisfaction it gave me is now certainly making me reconsider.
Evenings in La Marta were a lot of fun, consisting of cooking the interesting packaged food, participating in Active Global Citizenship sessions and playing a lot – and when I say ‘a lot’, I mean it – of card games. We were all in bed (aka im our sleeping bags and tents) by 9.30pm, ready to begin the day again at 6am the following morning.
Food was ‘trek food’ (what Raleigh groups eat whilst plodding through Costa Rica) as we didn’t have a cook like the other NRM groups. Thus, we ate a lot of crackers & bean paste, tinned tuna, packeted macaroni cheese, rice and chickpeas. It was pretty good really – especially the little packs of biscuits which were the equivalent of gold by the end of the three weeks.
Interaction with the local community was a big part of our time in La Marta, too. We hosted an action day at the local primary school, centred around climate change and La Marta itself. We had masses of fun speaking Spanish, playing games and painting trees – all whilst hopefully informing the children!
This wasn’t all – both the Saturdays we were there, we walked 5km to the nearest town, Pejibaye, to play football with the rangers and other locals. On other days off or if we had time after work, we went and sat by the pozas – natural swimming areas in the rivers. The water was glittery and transparent and the sky a bright blue. We often hiked to these pozas – very sweaty business indeed, but a lot of fun especially when scrambling up the jungle hillside.
I made some really special friends – in fact, we have all become a little family of sorts – in a really special place. I will never forget walking back to our campsite with Florence after interviewing some of the rangers for an article we were writing on behalf of Raleigh when one of them excitedly asked us if we wanted to see a boa constrictor. Having come from not particularly exotic locations, we were very excited but incredibly scared about this. Nonetheless we saw the boa as it slid its way into a jungle hole and even touched it – something which provoked lots of speaks and nervous laughter.
I learnt a lot about myself too: I surprised myself with a whole load of qualities I hadn’t before realised I possessed. That, in combination with the nature of the place and relationships I formed in La Marta, is what has made it such a magical place for me.