By: Maria Gigliello, www.thedirtbymaria.com
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope everyone’s 2020 is off to a great start. The holidays were very busy for me but I’m happy to be settling into the new year.
Today’s post is something I have been trying to figure out how to write about for literally a year. It has some outdoorsy elements, but this is just something I think is worth sharing. Exactly a year ago, I spent a week on a service trip in Costa Rica with my college. This was an experience that really impacted me and I just want to do it justice when recapping my time spent there. I still have a hard time putting into words exactly what I felt there and the experiences I had, but this post and the following one will be an attempt to do so. I will definitely be splitting this up into two parts because there is so much to share, so stick with me!
Let’s start with some context. At this point, I’m sure we all know that I graduated from Siena College in May. Siena is a Catholic Franciscan institution. What does this mean? The Franciscan Order is an order within Catholicism that was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. St. Francis was pretty cool guy who embraced poverty by giving up his worldly possessions, cared for the sick and truly revered and celebrated nature. Siena works to carry on the legacy of St. Francis by embracing values of diversity, optimism, respect and service. Service is huge at Siena. If you attend the college and don’t do some kind of service, I have to question if you were ever really a Siena Saint. Every year plenty of service opportunities are offered whether it’s a day of local service in the Capital Region, a Habitat for Humanity trip over spring break or an international service trip. My junior year I had gone on a service trip to Charlotte, North Carolina for a Habitat for Humanity build and I loved the whole experience so I decided my senior year I needed to go out with a bang and participate in an international trip. It is probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My roommate, Sam, decided to join me in this journey and after attending information sessions, we decided Costa Rica was the trip to go on. Other trips offered included Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, but the Costa Rica trip highlighted sustainability and immigration which were two things we were/still are interested in. Due to violence and tension in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua, many people immigrate to or seek refuge in Costa Rica. The trip was primarily focused on helping those people. We found out in October that we were accepted to participate in the trip and we would be leaving January 4th, 2019.
Leading up to our departure we had several meetings with everyone who was going on the trip to get to know each other and go over our itinerary for the week. I was happy to see some familiar faces at the first meeting but also excited to meet a handful of new people too. Our trip was broken into two parts. The first half of the week we would spend in San Jose, the nation’s capital, working with immigrants from Nicaragua. The second half we would travel to Longo Mai, a rural community primarily for El Salvadorian refugees and immigrants. I won’t bore you with other details leading up to our departure but I will let you know that the only thing I was anxious about before the trip was flying. I HATE flying. Flying is one of my biggest fears ever. I know airplanes are super safe and you’re more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than during the flight itself but there’s something about being in a large, metal tube with nothing below me but air that really freaks me out. I wasn’t worried about being in a foreign country, staying with a host family or the dangerous animals the country houses- I was more worried about not getting there at all.
The morning of January 4th, the 14 of us arrived at Albany International Airport. Some of us were sleepy, some were excited and some were biting their fingernails. Before we boarded, I texted my goodbyes and I love yous to my family and boarded our tiny airplane to Newark. That flight I could handle. I don’t even think we reached a solid cruising altitude because the whole flight took no joke about 25 minutes. However, our next leg was from Newark straight to San Jose, a total of about 5 hours. Sam and I made sure we sat next to each other and she held my hand as I blasted “She’s A Rainbow” by the Stones through my headphones, one of the happiest songs I could think of. God was definitely on our side that leg of the trip because it was the smoothest flight I’ve ever had in my life. We touched down in sunny San Jose a little after noon. I wore leggings, sneakers and a long sleeve t-shirt on the flight which I immediately regretted when stepping outside of the airport. It was about 80 degrees, super sunny and slightly humid. Luckily I had my Tevas in my carry on and slipped into those bad boys letting my toes feel some of that warm, tropical air.
Our trip leader for the week, Joe Connelly, met us at the airport along with our trusty bus driver, Roberto, who became a beloved highlight of the trip. Joe is also a Siena grad who now coordinates service trips in Central America for college students. Before I left for Costa Rica, my good friend Thom who has been on several service trips to Nicaragua with Joe could not hype him up enough. He would repeatedly tell me that Joe is one of the best people he’s ever met and he will make your trip a life changing experience. In my first few minutes of meeting him I knew Thom was right. Traveling to a new country that is very different from yours is very overwhelming, but from the first day to the last, Joe made sure we all felt comfortable and were enjoying our time there.
Service trips at Siena emphasize actual service whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen, cleaning up an outdoor space, etc, but they also emphasize understanding the culture of wherever you are so you better understand the people you are helping. Costa Rica is culturally rich and we wasted no time getting to know the country. Right after we left the airport we were whisked away to a coffee plantation up in the mountains outside of San Jose. There we toured the plant, saw the process of picking the coffee beans and sending them through the plant. We even got to taste test some at the end. Our tour guide told us that many immigrant families work there because picking coffee beans is a very tiring job that not a lot of people want to do, but the company provides housing, electricity, water, internet and other resources to the families who pick the beans.
Dinner that night set the tone for the rest of our meals and I was perfectly okay with that. Chicken, rice, black beans, some kind of potato dish, a small chopped salad and fried plantains all washed down with strawberry juice. It was heavenly. I never liked beans before this trip but after eating them at every meal for a week, I came to love them. After our visit to the coffee farm and dinner we made our way to our lodgings. We stayed at a biblical university right in San Jose that often houses international students. Our rooms were small and simple but we each got our own and had all of our meals made for us there too. I had trouble sleeping the first night because most of us found very large insects awaiting us in our rooms when we got there but I was also just really looking forward to starting our first full day in Costa Rica.
The next morning greeted us with sunshine and the campus’ cat that we nicknamed, “Gatito.” He really took a liking to me and followed me around the campus grounds before breakfast. We spent the morning getting to know each other and the country some more. We had a history lesson from a professor at one of the local universities who was hilarious, but also extremely smart. I will never forget her telling us about how the “Pura Vida” lifestyle that Costa Rica markets is pretty much a sham. In her history lesson she highlighted how Costa Rica was and still is a pretty racist country, especially toward Afro-Costa Ricans and immigrants. She said, “you can’t live a pure lifestyle if you are not accepting of others.” This message carried on throughout the whole trip.
We also had some time to express our intentions for why we wanted to come on the trip and what we were hoping to get out of it. I obviously knew that I was on the trip to do service, but I mostly just wanted to connect with people on the trip. My favorite quote comes from Chris McCandless, the man behind the story of “Into the Wild.” Before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, he wrote down in his journal, “happiness is only real when shared.” I try to live by that quote by reminding myself to share joy and experiences with others. I am a pretty reclusive person and I do tend to push myself down rabbit holes of isolation but I have also found that I am happy when I am doing the things I love with other people. Therefore, my intention for the trip was to learn as much as possible from the people we would be spending time in order to better and further understand that we are all going through the human experience together.
That afternoon we travelled outside of the city again for an excursion to Irazu Volcano National Park. This was easily one of the highlights of the trip. Roberto cautiously and delicately snaked our bus up into the mountains beyond the clouds to this national park that contains an impressively large, dormant volcano. I mean it’s no secret that Costa Rica is a gorgeous country in terms of geographical features but we were all blown away by what we were looking at. Pictures don’t even do it justice but please take a moment to look at this photo I took while we were there.
While service was the main mission of the trip, I’m grateful we got to experience excursions like that because we learned a lot about the country from them. Additionally, they really did energize us on what were sometimes really draining days. We ended our day with a trip through the city of Cartago to look at ruins of the old city. Joe told us that when the country started to modernize, they really tried to leave behind and destroy all remnants of the past, but this fortress was one of the few older structures still standing. There was a live nativity inside and the sun setting left us in a perfect golden glow as we explored.
The next day we headed out to an area of San Jose called, “La Carpio.” It is known for being a very poor section of the city that primarily houses immigrants and refugees. Our plan for the day was to meet with a family who had immigrated from Nicaragua and for them to show us around the neighborhood. This might not seem like service but Joe said to us, “sometimes the best service you can do is listen to people and then go share their story with others.” Roberto dropped the gang off in La Carpio on a dusty, garbage filled street. The surrounding buildings were mostly made up of tin and there were stray dogs and cats running around. It was clear that we were in a pretty impoverished area. However, a man named Umberto and his family were there to meet us and take us inside their home. They had chairs lined up in their living room for all of us to sit in and fresh tortillas were being made on a small stove. Looking around, I noticed the floor was made of dirt, the walls were simple cement blocks and the roof was comprised of tin sheets. A few cats and dogs were running around inside the house too. It was kind of surreal that these people did not know any of us and had a very quaint home but still opened it up to us and made us feel so welcomed. We learned that they had immigrated to Costa Rica from Nicaragua and made a living selling tortillas to their neighbors in La Carpio. Their daughter also supported the family by working in San Jose at various office jobs. They explained to us that they immigrated to Costa Rica because there is so much unrest and violence in Nicaragua. Last year at this time, the country was on the brink of war. They also explained to us that La Carpio is where many immigrants live in Costa Rica because they are looked own upon by native Costa Ricans. I remember the daughter saying, “we are legal citizens of Costa Rica now and people still do not like us.” How heartbreaking and unjust is that? We then went for a walk around the rest of La Carpio and I had to hold back tears the rest of the afternoon because of what we saw.
Growing up in Albany, I have seen poverty before in places like Arbor Hill, but this was a different level. Umberto explained to us that La Carpio was settled in the 1990’s. He proceeded to tell us that once it was established as a true neighborhood in San Jose, the city built a dump right next to it because they didn’t like that there were so many immigrants residing there. The trash that inhabited the streets and its smell couldn’t be ignored. Umberto explained that the city doesn’t really fund anything in the neighborhood either so there is a lot of crime in La Carpio. We eventually made our way to a music center for children that had been built by the community as a place for their children to recreate and learn. The music center was nicely built, but I remember looking out into the center’s yard and seeing kids playing soccer barefoot; using rocks to mark the goals.
After our walk we returned to Umberto’s house and had a delicious lunch of fried fish, rice, beans and some veggies. Umberto’s family seemed better off than others in La Carpio but I was still floored that they were sharing so much food with us without any hesitation. I was continuously blown away by the kindness and hospitality of these people to complete strangers. After lunch, his daughter played her guitar for us. She and Umberto sang some songs in Spanish together and they were both really talented. It brought some joy to a disheartening day. However, melancholy returned to me as she played the last song for us. It was “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes and again I had to hold back tears. I’m sure if you heard it you’d know the song but in the meantime, I’ll share some lyrics:
“And I try, oh, my God, do I try/ I try all the time/ In this institution/ And I pray, oh, my God, do I pray/ I pray every single day/ For revolution.
And so I cry sometimes /When I’m lying in bed /Just to get it all out /What’s in my head/ And I, I am feeling a little peculiar.
And so I wake in the morning/ And I step outside/ And I take a deep breath and I get real high/ And I scream from the top of my lungs/ ‘What’s going on?!”
It broke my heart. I’m sure that’s not just a song she likes for the melody. The rest of the day I felt pretty introspective thinking about how fortunate I am and how Umberto’s family is struggling in a place that is supposed to be a refuge for them.
The next morning, we were supposed to do some volunteer work with immigrants and therapy dogs but plans had to get canceled for some reason (I was super bummed about this). Instead we headed up into the mountains again, about an hour outside of the city and went for a hike. Again, Roberto carefully navigated us up these windy mountain roads and we arrived in the Cordillera Central Volcanic Forest Reserve. I had never been in a cloud forest before and I was now shrouded in mist while surrounded by dense, lush, green forest. Again, another one of those things were pictures won’t even do it justice so there’s no way my words can either. I felt completely in my element hiking through the forest with Randall, our guide, and his adorable dog, Cora, leading the way. Our destination was a lookout point that faced a waterfall. Because it was so misty and cloudy, we didn’t get incredible views of the waterfall but it was still fun just to stretch our legs in a setting I had never experienced before. The cherry on top of such an exhilarating hike was hearing sloth calls as we waded through the forest. I didn’t see any, but it was still cool to know that they were hanging out in the trees around us. Randall was also extremely knowledgeable and extremely friendly. He didn’t speak English but with the help of some Spanish speakers in our group, he still guided us and taught us a lot about cloud forests.
That afternoon we descended back to San Jose to meet with a priest at The Church of St. Francis that was doing a lot of work with immigrants and refugees. His name is escaping me but he was a very nice older gentleman who was doing a lot of work in another impoverished area of San Jose. We also took a walk through this neighborhood and honestly the conditions were worse than La Carpio. There was still trash and stray animals everywhere, but I noticed in this neighborhood, their houses were made out of trash too. Some of the houses I saw were cardboard boxes stapled and nailed together to construct walls. We were lead past the houses to this long strip of dirt probably two football fields wide and about a half mile long. The priest told us that this used to be an area of homes in this community but they were torn down so a road could be built. He said the city targeted this area solely because there is a large population of immigrants living there. Burned into my brain is an image of kids were playing in the dirt where there homes once stood. Walking up and down the area, I noticed a tomato plant was growing toward the far edge of the dirt strip. I remember thinking to myself what an odd place for a plant to grow and then I realized it was probably a tomato plant in someone’s garden that used to exist there before it was plowed over. I felt tears well up in my eyes again. I still can’t even fathom how 1. people have to live like that and 2. some people want other groups of people to suffer simply because of where they’re from.
That night when we got back to our dorms I FaceTimed my parents and cried my eyes out to them. Everything I saw that day made me realize something that I will always believe in. After visiting La Carpio and the other impoverished neighborhood, I concluded that nothing happens for a reason. There is absolutely no reason that anyone should be born into poverty, or be born into a war-torn country, or have to flee their country and still be persecuted when they go live in another one. There is no reason that I was born into a nice, comfortable suburban home with actual walls and that I’ll probably never have to seek refuge in another country. It is all purely luck. I am lucky that I was born where I was and the people I met in San Jose are unlucky that they were born where they were. It would be cruel to say that someone was born into a poor, immigrant family for a reason. I felt hopeless after that day. How is it fair that anyone has to live like the people in La Carpio? That night I fell asleep to “I’d Love to Change the World,” by Ten Years After.
Again, I know this post strays from my usual narrative and tone, but I think it’s important that I share this experience. I truly do believe in Franciscan values and try to incorporate them into everything I do whether thats at my job, with the people I interact with or while I’m out hiking. I know this post was long winded so I will stop here for now. The second half of the trip to Longo Mai will be continued in my next post.
Until next time.
By: Maria Gigliello, www.thedirtbymaria.com