Raleigh Part 3: An Indigenous Community

My final three weeks with Raleigh were spent in the indigenous community of Dörbata in Alto Chirripo: a rocky, verdant and mountainous region of Costa Rica. Our main task whilst there was to complete the construction of a new, 3 classroom school for the community’s children. Raleigh had been approached by the local Indigenous Association and the community of Dorbata to help after their previous school building had been pulled down after a local dispute over the land on which it stood.

Lessons had been moved into a make-shift classroom – more a rickety shelter than a building – and they really needed somewhere more solid, practical and safe to teach in. This structure also housed our kitchen and tiny sleeping quarters for Rosie (our cook) and Elkin (her husband, the constructor) as well as our three project managers. In addition to this, it acted as our dining room and meeting space whilst lessons weren’t going on. Meanwhile, we slept in one of the new classrooms, built by the first group of Raleigh volunteers in Dörbata.

We began our work as soon as possible. We were able to choose whether we constructed the building or painted, changing around every day or so, but I actually ended up painting the whole time. I loved it – applying wood treatment and painting the walls reminded me of home and was incredibly satisfying work. We’d be painting away with some great music on and the day would fly by. All in all, very fun!

In addition to the physical labour, I provided English lessons to the locals, some of whom had never seen white people before Raleigh arrived in Dörbata several months before. The lessons were a lot of fun and I taught a vast range of ages, from 6 to 60 years of age. We covered the basics, from numbers to the alphabet to greetings… my favourite part of teaching was the fact that 3 languages would be spoken in the lesson. We were teaching English using Spanish, the community’s second language. Then, what I had taught would then be translated into Cabecer (the community’s first language) if needed by those less adept in Spanish.

Additionally, the vast majority of the community were illiterate, which posed as another challenge as sorts and thus I adapted the games and methods I had been taught to use during my CELTA teacher training. For one lesson, I thought it would be good to present the students with a simple board game, one which always went down a treat with low level students during my training. But it soon transpired that my students – 5 children between the ages of 6 and 12 plus a 50 year old man – had never come across the concept of a board game… This made me realize just how isolated this community is and how separate they are to the conventions of my everyday life.

Furthermore, as in La Marta, we were to deliver action and engagement days to the community in order to increase interest and enthusiasm in education given that, after all, we were building them a school! I found myself in charge of the first action day, coordinating all the different activities, presentations, marketing and refreshments. I found this difficult – it often feels wrong being in charge of your peers. You need to lead and garner respect, but you also want to maintain friendships. I spoke about this in my personal development 1-1 with my Project Manager who understood where I came from, but thankfully told me I’d managed to maintain an effective balance of the two…!

The day was a success, despite attendees arriving an hour later than our advertised time. This appeared to be the general approach of the community who were incredibly lax about timings. Indeed, one day my students turned up a whole 2 hours late for their English lesson. This inevitably led me to reflect on the way in which we, at home, adhere to timings and the social responses associated with arriving early, on time or late. Let’s just say I now really know that being late isn’t the be-all-and-end-all…

Other activities during our time in Dörbata included daily football (or ‘mehenga’) matches at 3pm after work – the pigs also liked to join in on the game – and hikes to the river and to the local town on our days off. Something else which reinforced our isolation was the fact that the nearest town, Grano de Oro, was a 10km walk through a pine forest from the village.

One of our favorite things to do on an evening would be to sit outside on the benches, made by the previous group of Raleigh volunteers, under the stars. There we were in the middle of Costa Rica with essentially no light pollution. The stars were, quite simply, astounding. A mid-night trip to the loo was worth getting out of bed for, if only for the sky! In fact, I loved my nightly routine of waking up at 3am (jet-lag, or rather trek-lag) and heading outside to do my business under the stars (the loo was too far away from our sleeping quarters to walk to durning the night – one word: snakes – so we had a designated spot for midnight wees).

One of my favorite evenings was when we were all heading in to go to sleep and suddenly the sky filled up with a solid splodge of gold which kept morphing into various splodgy-shapes. We soon enough realized that it was Turrialba Volcano erupting. Seeing that happen with the worlds shimmering and twinkling above your head was quite something.

I have to mention the food and toilet situations too, as they were as much of a learning curve as the rest! For three weeks, I ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, albeit with some variation – plantain or egg, usually. And, as you can probably imagine, the thrice-a-day consumption of beans generally led one to need the toilet more than often, and boy, that toilet was a special place. A plastic green throne which sat above a huge hole and surrounded by a makeshift wall of bin bags. And, of course, a tin roof to protect us from the rain mid-visit – quite possibly the most luxurious part of an already wonderful experience! Trips to the long-drop were always done with the company of some fine individuals – in addition to the many (inevitable) flies, we were often accompanied by al, sorts of weird and wonderful insects!

One of my final tasks in Dörbata was the drawing up of a map of the village. Over the previous 8 weeks, two teams of volunteers diligently collected coordinates of all the houses and roads in Dörbata – hours of work with expert results, despite being carried out by ‘map-amateurs’! My job was to copy out the map and create a key – and whilst this all sounds rather easy in comparison to the work of my fellow volunteers, it was rather difficult. A very steady and precise hand was needed to replicate the map on a larger scale, using the (rather dusty) floor of one of the new classrooms as my desk.

My time in Dörbata was, like the other six weeks spent with Raleigh, just incredible. The people I met, the relationships I forged and the things I learnt were overwhelming and made it very hard to say goodbye. My appreciation for variety in food and shiny bathrooms grew exponentially, yet such experiences simultaneously reinforced the idea that I don’t need much luxury to live a happy life. My preconceptions were challenged; I, myself, was challenged in terms of leadership and adjusting to a previously alien way of life; and questions arose about my own personal principles and those that we all hold high in the “westernized” world we live in. In fact, it made me want to redefine or reallocate the notion of “western” civilization as, after all, the Dörbatans live in and are a part of the west. How can we say that the way they live isn’t “civilized”? We can’t. All we can do is respect and live – if I’m going to take one thing away from my time in Dörbata, it’s that.

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