FDU sophomore Dan Palmer clears debris with a new friend in Manzanillo, Costa Rica.
On our last night in Manzanillo, Costa Rica, I was on my way back to the hotel when one of the locals waved me over.
“I hear you’re all leaving tomorrow,” he said. I nodded, though I hadn’t yet quite come to terms that our trip was coming to a close. The man smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “We are all so grateful for what you do for this community. We are a small little town, and what you all do here to support us makes such a difference. Bless you.” Though hard work gives its own rewards, the validation and appreciation from one of the town’s residents is something that will touch me forever.
On Jan. 6, I was among 13 students and two faculty members from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s College at Florham who arrived in Costa Rica for our Alternative Winter Break trip. The central focus of our trip was community service: during our stay, we would work on a variety of beach projects and renovate the town’s only schoolhouse before the students returned from the winter holiday.
On our first day of service work, arriving at the school put everything in perspective. For children in kindergarten through eighth grade, a total of about 70 students, the little turquoise schoolhouse held three classrooms and a small kitchen. Desks and chairs were piled into corners, mildew stained the seafoam-colored walls, and the ocean had caused a year’s worth of rust to cake up on the wrought-iron windows.
We divided into two teams; one half would stay and work on the school while the other headed up to the beach, bringing in painted concrete cylinders and planting trees to protect the beach from cars. We were essentially given our assignments, and it was up to us to create teams and an efficient work system. In addition to making a difference within the town, we were also given the opportunity to hone our own leadership skills.
Sometimes as we worked, local children would come up to us, helping us plant trees or just sitting nearby and chatting. It was such a unique experience to not only make our mark on the community, but also to interact with the locals on such a casual level.
I went to Manzanillo so I could make an impact on the community. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much the little community on the southeast tip of Costa Rica would have on me.
While I came away from the trip with an incredible feeling of pride about our service projects, there is certainly something to be said about being completely immersed in another culture. Costa Rica, “the rich coast,” is certainly an appropriate name for this country. Everything is vibrant and fresh, from the scenery to the food to the people.
Because Fairleigh Dickinson University’s mission is to provide a global education, much of our core curriculum consists of the problem of “ethnocentricism” – when a person views the world only through the lens of his or her own culture. Understanding this concept helped us immeasurably when we found ourselves surrounded by a culture that was not our own, and some customs didn’t quite line up with the American way of life. I came back from the trip not only with a head full of braids, but also with a different outlook on the world.
During our first restaurant meal in Costa Rica, we were surprised to find out that service is much slower than back home, and a lunch out could last as long as two to three hours. Not long into the trip, however, once we had broken down some of our own cultural walls, we began to look forward to these stretches of time, a change to relax and catch up. After engaging in some of our best conversations during these long mealtimes, it’s made me rethink the American need to be constantly busy – maybe there really is something to be said for taking some time out of the day where the only agenda is to catch up with loved ones and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
Freshman Lauren Ruzicka washes dishes at Manzanillo's only school house.
In Manzanillo, a common response to “how are you” is pura vida, which means “the good life.” The phrase has been bouncing around in my head since our arrival. What exactly makes “the good life”? In Manzanillo, there are no iPads, a handful of television stations, and the solitary road into the town has only existed for 30 years, yet everyone is living pura vida. It made us all stop and rethink our values and how we measure personal success – maybe the secret to pura vida isn’t as complicated as we think.
Before going on the Alternative Winter Break trip, I found myself at the crossroad that many other college seniors face – the stresses of getting a “real” job, living arrangements, and coming to terms with the fact that a four-year chapter of my life will soon come to a close. While thinking about the future is certainly still a little intimidating, I feel that this helped me to find out what in this world is important to me. Knowing that the children of Manzanillo will go back to a beautiful school is made a little sweeter by finding myself along the way.
Professor of English Katie Singer applies a fresh coat of paint to the town bus stop.