goodbyes and gratitude

Today I had to say goodbye to everyone at the school that I’ve worked with for the six weeks that I’ve been here. The students, the teachers, the speech therapists…It was a hard, emotional day, but it was a happy one, too. Even though it was sad to say goodbye, I felt so loved by these people that I have only known for a month and a half.

In the morning when I brought the kids in Marcela’s class back in from recess, I found that tables from other classrooms had been moved into her room and that all the classes in that hallway were going to have their snacks there together. I then realized that it was because the teachers had all planned to throw me a little going away party. They had made little sandwiches and fruit salad. They bought iced tea, ice cream, and jello. They thanked me for how I’d helped them while I was there. It was so sweet. Most of these women hardly know me, and yet they helped put together an adorable way to say goodbye and thank you. I felt tears coming on, but I manged to hold them back because there was still a lot to do, since all the kids were snacking in one room!

After lunch, I had to say goodbye to the students in Marcela’s class. I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t get to say a good goodbye to Alexa (the most adorable little rascal of a girl!), because sometimes she denies hugs and goodbye kisses to be ornrey. Lucky for me, when Marcela told her to give me a hug goodbye, she jumped into my arms and gave me a huge hug. That time I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.

One of the teaching assistants that I’ve worked with a lot walked by after Alexa left and told me not to cry, because it’s not “goodbye,” it’s just “see you later.” It reminded me of the last day of camp, when we say the same thing, or that we’re just hitting pause…But it was a little harder to accept this time, as tomorrow I’m going to be heading to another country. I’m determined to come back to Costa Rica though, and soon. So it is only a “see you later,” I will make it a “see you later!”

In the afternoon, Rebeca (whose classroom I was in the first day in the afternoon and various other days) came to find me while I was working with Silvia’s class and asked if I could come down to her room for a bit. So down I went, and when I got there all the kids (ages 10 to 13) were working on drawings, and then one by one they came to give them to me and give me a hug!! Then they brought out a cake that had “Gracias” written on it, and gave me a little card and a bright green polo shirt, like the brightly colored shirts the teachers and assistants wear. Before I left I got even more hugs from the kids.

When I got back to Silvia’s classroom, she asked what Rebeca wanted, and I told her. She responded, “Well we have a surprise for you, too!” and whipped some chocolate cupcakes out of nowhere. After almost everyone had finished eating (one of the boys was taking a very long time to lick all the icing off his cupcake!), she pulled something out of her bag. She thanked me for all the help I had given her, especially because she has been having knee problems and can’t run after the kids who escape often, and told me that she knew that I had an impact on her kids, too. Then she should me what she had pulled out of her bag. She had taken pictures of almost all of her kids one day at recess and printed the pictures out on one sheet that says, “Gracias Nicole!” Needless to say, my room is going to have lots of meaningful decorations this year.

I kept thanking all of them, and I hope they know that I wasn’t just thanking them for the cake. I couldn’t express myself very well because I was on the verge of tears, but I hope they understood that I was thanking them for the experience. For the things I learned from them and for their unending friendliness towards me. They were thanking me, but all I could think was that I was not the one who deserved thanks.

Leaving the school was so hard. By the time I left, I was just crying. I hugged Silvia and the teacher assistants that I have worked with the whole time I’ve been here. They all wished me well, hoped I had a safe trip, told me to make sure I write them (I have all of their email addresses), and that we’ll see each other again soon because I’m welcome back at the school whenever I come back to Costa Rica.

Just like that it was time to leave.

I really can’t believe that my time here is over. Early this morning before I got out of bed I was thinking about the first few days I was here after the trip to Arenal. I was scared. I remembered having to remind myself of why I had come to Costa Rica, and why I was working in an education school. I remembered that I had to tell myself to SWAG it, to give it my all even though I was scared and out of my comfort zone.

And all of a sudden I realized that I finally understood the FDR quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I’ve always thought it was a cool quote, but now it really resonates with me.

I had a lot of fears when I decided to come here. I was afraid of being homesick. I was afraid of working with special needs children. I was afraid of being lonely. I’m sure I was afraid of other things, I just don’t remember the little fears anymore.

It turns out that I had nothing to be afraid of, but can you imagine if I had let those fears get the best of me? What if I had let the fears left over from my experience in Spain keep me from coming here? I would have lost so many wonderful experiences. I would have missed out on meeting and getting to know so many fantastic people.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now I know what that means. I know that fear is dangerous. I know that giving in to my fears will keep me from living life to its fullest. I’ve learned that I really have nothing to be afraid of.

Around thirteen hours from now my flight will take off from the San José airport and this experience in Costa Rica will be over. Although I’m so sad that the time has flown by so quickly and I’m leaving, I am also extremely grateful for the short period of time that I spent here.

Don’t worry Costa Rica, I’ll be back soon.

20130821-225244.jpg

Advertisements

perspective and possibility

Last Monday morning there was a little assembly at school. The assembly was held in a an outdoor ampitheater-like area at the deaf school, which is across the street from the special education school (where I spent my time volunteering). I had known there was going to be a some sort of event because Marcela had been working on a little dance presentation with her class. When the assembly started, I learned that it was to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the school and to welcome a missionary team that had come from the United States.

I didn’t didn’t learn much about the missionary team until later, but the assembly was fun! A few groups of students performed, including Marcela’s class. A class of visually impaired students performed a simple choreographed dance routine with they help of their teachers; two girls (a younger girl from the school for the blind and a high schooler from the special education school) sang songs; Marcela led her class in a little dance routine that incorporated some fun movements and some elements of yoga (they do yoga every Tuesday); and a group of high schoolers ffrom the special education school performed a typical Costa Rican dance (with traditional clothes and everything!) to give the missionaries a little taste of their culture. They also sang “happy birthday” to the school!

The assembly was fun, and afterwards the kids got ice cream and cupcakes for their snacks. Although I had enjoyed the performances that the kids had given, I was mostly intrigued by the group of missionaries. I wanted to know more about what they came to do, so after I ate lunch I went to find them and introduced myself to some of the women. I learned that they were from a couple of sister churches in Texas, and that some of them had been coming for three, four, and five years. Although some of them come and fix things around the school (like the playgrounds), what’s really cool about this group of people is that it is made up mostly of physical, occupational, and speech therapists!

On Tuesday I asked one of the physical therapists if it would be okay for me to hang out with them on Thursday to see what kind exactly what kind of work they were doing in the school. She agreed enthusiastically, so on Thursday when I headed to school I was excited to see what they do!

When I got to school Thursday morning the therapists were all in the elementary school wing, about to observe some of the classrooms there. The point of the classroom visits was for the therapists from the missionary team to observe the students in the classroom environment, talk to the teacher and therapists at the school about what their biggest concerns are, and then give recommendations changes and improvements that could be made to the classroom routine or to how a specific student’s issues are approached.

To help all of this happen, I was supposed to translate! I had hardly been introduced to everyone when they moved into the first classroom. It happened to be the classroom I was in on the first day with the kids who have severe emotional and behavioral issues.

I had never translated before, so it was quite the experience. It was especially difficult because I still have a lot to learn about disabilities, and I knew nothing about physical or occupational therapy, so I lacked a lot of vocabulary. There were some moments when I was at a complete loss for words and had to ask whoever was speaking (whether in Spanish or English) to explain what they were talking about to me (instead just naming concepts), so that I could give that information to the other person in hopes they would understand what I was trying to describe. That worked sometimes, but other times I had no idea what someone was talking about (usually neurology related stuff), so someone would pull out their phone and google whatever word or concept that was tripping me up.

I’ll be honest with you: it was a stressful experience. Multiple people would be talking to me at the same time, in different languages, on top of the already loud classroom noises. Sometimes I would listen to someone speaking Spanish and turn to one of the American women to translate, but I would accidentally start speaking Spanish to her instead of English. But it was really cool to be facilitation communication between the members of the American therapists and the Costa Rican teachers and therapists. And for the most part I felt like I was doing a fairly good job, for my first time translating!

(On Friday I translated for them again. When I finally remembered férula, the Spanish word for splint, and used it instead of gesturing or pointing to a splint, one of the therapists from Centeno Guell smiled at me and said something to the effect of, “Look at Nicole, she’s learning the technical vocabulary!”).

Besides the fact that just translating for them was a cool experience, having the opportunity to observe them observing the classrooms and giving their recommendations to the teachers was really eye-opening for me. I don’t have the knowledge or experience to have the perspective that they have yet, and getting to see the kids and the school through their eyes was really fascinating!

After they finished the classroom observations, they went back to the cafeteria, which was where they had all their stuff set up. By “all their stuff,” I mean all the donated equipment they had brought with them, as well as the materials they had brought or bought in Costa Rica to make more stuff for the kids. The donated equipment included walkers, wheel chairs, bikes (not just regular bikes, but bikes made especially for therapy), splints, and orthopedic shoe inserts.

In the cafeteria, they had appointments set up with individual students, their parents (usually just the mom), and their teacher. What happened at these appointments was similar to what happened in the classrooms, but more tailored to the specific child. The therapists would spend some time working with the child and seeing what their needs were and giving recommendations on what might help them. Sometimes they were fitted with splints, or told that a weighted vest or scarf would be made for them. Other times, donated equipment would be adjusted to work specifically for them.

For example, one of the high school students had severe tremors in his right arm, which made it hard for him to walk, in addition to the trouble he already had walking. So they added an arm rest with a little handle for him to hold onto and straps to hold his arm in place to a walker. I didn’t see him before he had the walker, but when he came in to try it out for the first time, I don’t think he stopped smiling the whole time he was there. He was just beaming and saying “thank you, thank you!” (not gracias, thank you) as he walked around using his newly improved walker. It was really beautiful to watch him take so much pleasure just from being able to walk around.

In addition to translating, I also spent some time helping one of the women from the missionary team with some sewing projects. Instead of ordering things like weighted vests for kids at the school, she made them! It was fun to spend time with her, listen to her many tips about sewing, and just talk with her. Plus, I got to help make things that would help kids at the school!

I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with the missionary team on Thursday and Friday. Actually, “enjoyed” is a completely inadequate word. I am so thankful for the time that I got to spend with the missionary team. I learned so much in those two days. At some point when I was talking to one of the physical therapists, I realized that when I get home and start my classes for fall semester, I’ll have a totally different perspective on them than I would have if I hadn’t come here to work at Centeno Guell. Even those two days (that were really way too short!) that I spent with the missionary team will contribute greatly to that change in perspective.

Not only did I gain valuable experience and perspective, but I had the opportunity to make connections with wonderful people! They were all so encouraging and friendly, telling me to let them know when I was in Houston, or that I can sleep on their daughter’s couch when I visit the University of Texas at Austin. Not to mention that their careers complement my career plan!

What might be the best part of getting to work with the missionary team (can all the parts be the best part?) is that I have the contact information of the woman who organizes the trip, and she has mine! So guess what that means?? …I might have the chance to head back to Costa Rica (and Centeno Guell!) next summer with the mission team! I am so excited at the prospect of being able to be a part of their team. We’ll see what happens, but I really hope I am able to join them. The thought of coming back to Centeno Guell and helping to give to those kids (and their families, the teachers, the school in general) the way the mission team does just makes my heart happy.

I feel like every moment I spend here has the potential to be life changing. Every day holds so many possibilities! I hope that’s a mindset that I can bring with me when I go home next week (that’s right, this time next week I’ll be home…). It’s another one of those things that I’ve heard or told myself for a long time. But I never really lived it until now.

el día de la virgen de los angeles

Yesterday, August 2nd, was the day that’s set aside to celebrate the patron saint of Costa Rica, la Virgen de los Angeles. When I first heard about this holiday a few weeks ago, my first thought was that it would be like the Catholic holidays in Spain. Parades, special masses, and people gathering at the respective church to honor whichever virgin they are celebrating. The end of this blog post from my blog in Spain talks about the day of la Virgen de las Angustias, one of the patron saints of Granada, if you want to see what I was expecting in a little more detail.

It turns out that every year there is a romería, or pilgrimage, to Cartago, where the Basilica Nuestra Señora de los Angeles is. People come to Cartago from all corners of Costa Rica walking, running, biking, on horseback, you name it. On Thursday night I went up to the main road in San Pedro to watch the romeros (people doing the pilgrimage), and we saw a couple of guys on unicycles! Although the official holiday was yesterday, people have been walking since sometime last week. Remember how I said that it took about five hours to get to the Arenal volcano the first weekend I was here? Well people walked to Cartago from Arenal this week!

On Thursday night, so many people were making their way to Cartago that they close the main road that goes through San Pedro from San José to Cartago around five in the evening. Like I said, Isabel, Jorge, Matías, and I walked up to the main road to watch people walk by. I was amazed by the sheer number of people, as well as the range of people I saw making the pilgrimage. There were teenagers, families, parents pushing babies in strollers, middle-aged people, older people; people from all walks of life were making the journey to Cartago. I had been thinking about doing the romería on Friday morning, and the experience of watching thousands of people walk by made me realize that if I didn’t go I would be missing a once in a lifetime chance to participate in something so inherent to Costa Rican culture.

So yesterday at six in the morning, I set off on the 22 km (about 14 miles) journey to Cartago with some food, water, my journal, and my camera. And I was wearing a SWAG shirt of course. How could I have an adventure on my own like that without one?

Although there weren’t quite as many people walking as there had been the night before, there will still tons of romeros. It was really fun to look around as I was walking and see the huge diversity of people up close in the daylight. Some people were all decked out in sports gear with water bottles strapped around their waist, while others wore jeans. Every few minutes a runner or two would pass. Every once in awhile, especially as we got closer to Cartago, there would be people sitting to take a break on the side of the road. I got to listen to so many little pieces of conversations, from a couple of twenty-somethings talking about Jager bombs to a family reciting prayers as they walked.

A little view of the people around me at one point during my walk.

A little view of the people around me at one point during my walk.

There lots of booths set up along the road as well. People were selling fruit, juice, snacks, and water. One group of people had a booth that was giving away little cups of coffee and breakfast pastries away for free. A handful of people selling rosaries. All along the way there were signs for bathrooms, some you had to pay to use. Policemen were stationed everywhere, and every few miles there would be a police outpost next to a collection of Red Cross tents.

Not only did I get to people watch, but the weather and scenery were beautiful, too! Because I left so early, it was a cool and breezy walk. Even after the sun was all the way up, it was never too hot while I was walking. The sky was beautiful, blue, and full of white clouds. There wasn’t even a hint of rain.

As I was walking, I realized that the road was leading me closer to one of the mountains I can see from my window when it’s not cloudy. I loved getting closer to it and getting a changing perspective on it as I walked past it and up the hills on the road I was walking on. The green mountain set against the blue sky, along with the refreshing morning breeze made for an incredible way to spend three and a half hours walking.

I love mountains.

I love mountains.

At some point along the way I realized that even though I had decided to go alone, I hadn’t felt bored or lonely the whole time I was walking. I was so engaged by observing the people around me and enjoying the scenery that it didn’t even matter that I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I’m actually really glad that I went on my own. I got to walk at my own pace, stop to take pictures without bothering anyone, and really take in what was going on around me. It was a great reminder that being alone and being lonely are two entirely different things.

After about two hours my feet and legs were beginning to ache. Right around then road started going uphill a little more steeply than it had been. I never stopped though, because I never actually felt exhausted or miserable. My shoulders probably bothered me the most from carrying my backpack, but I was glad I brought some fruit and granola bars to snack on. Isabel had left me some bread with cheese to take with me for breakfast as well, so that was nice. Carrying my own snacks was much better than having to wait for a place to stop and buy something along the way. I was definitely working hard and walking at a fairly quick pace, but I felt pretty great the whole time.

Headed up and around.

Headed up and around.

Excuse me while I make another comparison to Spain for just a moment here: There is no way I could have done this while I was in Spain. I wouldn’t have wanted to because I would have known I would be miserable. I definitely wouldn’t have gone on my own. Needless to say I spent a lot of time being thankful as I was walking.

Right after the three hour mark, I ran into Jorge. It turns out that he had left only about half an hour before I had! I walked the last twenty or so minutes to the basilica with him, which was nice. He asked how my morning had been and we talked about the variety of people we had seen as we walked.

Then all of a sudden we were at the basilica! It’s really a beautiful building, inside and out. And it was surrounded by people. The whole plaza in front of it was full of people because they were having a huge mass outside. There were lines to enter different parts of the basilica. People everywhere. It was really cool to share that part of the experience with Jorge because he would tell me little things about the church or the Virgen de los Angeles as as we walked around.

image

image

After we had gone into the basilica and walked around the outside of it a little bit, Jorge headed to find the buses to head back home while I stuck around to journal a little bit, listen to part of the mass, and just take in everything that was going on.

The whole experience was seriously beautiful. It was so cool to stand in the middle of thousands of people as they recited prayers and sang together. I couldn’t stop being thankful that I had made the decision to come early so I could witness the mass.

I think this is my very favorite picture that I took yesterday. It says so much. The church, the people, the Costa Rican flag... I love it.

I think this is my very favorite picture that I took yesterday. It says so much. The church, the people, the Costa Rican flag… I love it.

I finally made my way to where the buses where leaving from (after asking a series of helpful policemen), hopped on a bus, and was on my way back home. For awhile the bus passed the road that I had walked on all morning, and it was really cool to see tons of romeros making there way to Cartago.

Watching romeros from the bus window.

Watching romeros from the bus window.

When I got home, Isabel was waiting excitedly for me. She was so happy and proud that I participated in the romería on my own that it made me that much happier that I had decided to go.

After I took a shower, I only had about two hours until we were off to visit Isabel’s niece who lives in Guacima, a town in the country outside of San José. Although I was tired, I had agreed to go with them and wasn’t going to be doing anything besides sit around the rest of the day anyway, so I hopped in the car with Isabel, Jorge, and Matías.

I’m really glad I went. It was so much fun to go with them and just spend the evening with them like I was part of their family. Isabel’s niece Jessica and her husband Mario were incredibly nice and fun, and their house was beautiful. It was really contemporary and they had decorated it beautifully. We were sitting on their back patio when the sun was setting and it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. We sat and talked (well, I mostly listened, but I did talk with them!), ate, and played with Jessica and Mario’s chocolate lab puppy, Sami. It was around nine by the time we left and I was starting to really feel exhausted, but I would have been happy to stay longer and enjoy their company.
I really had a beautiful day yesterday. It would have been amazing even if it had been over after noon, but getting to spend time with my host family and their family was such a cool experience. I definitely feel welcome in their lives, and that’s a really nice feeling.

At one point when we were at Jessica’s, Jorge and I were talking about how he would love to build a little house and move out to where Jessica and Mario live, but that he loves having students too much and he would be sad to not host them anymore. This family is so sweet and dedicated to making sure they take care of the students who live with them, and I feel so lucky to be here.

I absolutely loved my experiences yesterday. Even though today my back is killing me and my feet still hurt a little bit, I wouldn’t give up my experience participating in the romería. I still can’t believe I participated in it. It was definitely a wonderful adventure.

halfway point

Today marks the halfway point in my time here in Costa Rica. Three weeks ago today, I flew into San José and three weeks from today I will be flying back into Cincinnati. I can’t believe I only have three weeks left here, especially after the way the past three weeks have just flown by!

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about how content I’m feeling here. One morning I woke up thinking about how the Nicole that was in Spain two years ago wouldn’t believe it if someone told her that in two years she would voluntarily go abroad again and actually be happy most of the time. Although I miss my family, friends, and certain things about home, I have almost never found myself being homesick here. And if you followed along while I was in Spain (or even have read that blog since then), you know just how amazing that really is. It’s quite miraculous, actually.

I know a lot of that has to do with the fact that I am healthy and don’t have a nasty bacterial infection raging in my intestines. However, I can’t help but wonder how I’ve grown in the past (almost) two years to allow me to have the almost entirely positive experience that I’m having now. Even in my everyday, American life, this feeling of contentment is not consistently present.

For those reasons (and many more!), I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on my everyday experiences here. Sometimes I find myself reflecting on experiences as they happen (I’ll share one of those moments shortly), but most of the time I reflect after the fact. I’ve spent hours laying on my bed, filling my little orange journal with whatever comes to mind. Stories, thoughts, emotions, observations, you name it. On a daily basis, I’m amazed at what I’m learning here. Not only about working with special needs children, like I signed up for, but also about myself and about life in general.

Take Monday, for instance. One of the teachers at the school, Marcela (the one who plays lots of music for her students), also teaches dance at a little studio in another town. I unwillingly got roped into going to one of her belly dancing classes. Belly dancing, can you believe it? Honestly, I didn’t really want to go. But I went because she was really excited about me coming, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to try something new and spend a little time with her outside of school.

The class was an hour and a half long. At some point about half an hour into it, I realized that I was really enjoying myself. We were just learning basic moves, but I was having fun being there and learning. Immediately after I realized I was having a great time, it hit me: I would NEVER do this at home. I would never go to a belly dancing class, and if I did I would be too embarrassed about trying to dance in front of other people that I definitely wouldn’t have a good time. But there I was, laughing and dancing in Marcela’s little class (that she was teaching in Spanish, by the way), having a blast.

It’s not like the idea of pushing myself out of my comfort zone is a new one to me. Every year at camp the idea that the best things happen outside your comfort zone is at the forefront of many of the leadership lessons. I’ve tried to keep that in mind for years! But it wasn’t until that moment in the dance studio that it really hit me.
And a that moment a bunch of pieces in the puzzle of why I’m so content in Costa Rica came together:

  • Coming here at all was a huge step out of my comfort zone. After being so homesick in Spain, I was terrified of leaving home for another country again.
  • Every day I go to work in a special education school, having no prior experience working with special needs children. Each day there is a new challenge. I love it, but it’s totally outside my comfort zone.
  • I take two public buses each morning and each afternoon to get to and from the school. That may not seem like a huge deal, but I avoid taking the city buses in Columbus because I’m afraid I’ll end up somewhere I don’t want to be.
  • I live with a Costa Rican family, and for a week now I’ve been the only American student living here, and will be until I leave.
  • I’m planning on going to museums in San José and exploring them on my own in the upcoming weekends. That’s also something I would never do at home.

Sometimes even smallest things seem like the biggest leaps out of my comfort zone. But here’s the thing: each little step I take outside of my comfort zone means a tiny expansion of its reaches. With every moment that I push myself to do things I might not be entirely comfortable with here, I am growing.

I hope that’s something I can take home with me when I leave in three weeks. I think I needed this very strong reminder that pushing myself to my limits is the only way change will ever happen. I’m slowly learning that I’ve been living my life pretty stagnantly, and I want that to change.

It feels pretty good to be content, despite the normal highs and lows. I can’t believe I had to come all the way to Costa Rica to figure out exactly what I was missing!!

music is magic

After my first day at Centeno Guell, I’ve spent most of my time there working with the same two classes. On Monday and Wednesday morning and Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I work with Marcela’s class. Monday and Wednesday afternoon and Tuesday and Thursday morning I work with Silvia’s class. Both of those teachers work in the same classroom but, as you might have guessed, one is there in the morning while the other comes in the afternoon! Both Marcela and Silvia have little kiddos that are around five years old.

Although I have enjoyed working with both classes, I especially like working with Marcela. She’s very bubbly, friendly, and open with me. Through her friendly nature, I hear a lot from her about the personalities of her students and what each of their strengths and weaknesses are. Having that knowledge has helped me to feel more comfortable with the kids in her class because I’m not relying solely on what I’ve observed through working with them.

Another thing I really like about Marcela is the amount of music she plays for her students. Part of their routine at the beginning of every class is to sing and sign along with a few children’s songs. Later in the day, they sometimes have either a little “relaxation” time or yoga, and she plays calm, relaxing music for those parts of the day. There are a couple things that I really wanted to share related to the music that Marcela plays.

I’ll start off by talking about Alexa, a little girl in Marcela’s class who has Down Syndrome. And when I say little, I mean little. Alexa is the smallest in her class. She is so tiny and cute, especially because she always wears her hair in pigtails. Although she doesn’t have a huge vocabulary, she is very social, talks quite a lot, and is rather bossy. She’s always calling me over to her, saying, “Venga! Venga!” and motioning with her hand for me to come. But even though she wants me to come, she always wants to do things on her own. Like when we were brushing teeth after lunch and she pushed me away, declaring, “Sola!

I discovered rather quickly that Alexa likes music and loves to dance. When they sing songs at the beginning of class, she’s always clapping, signing, and singing along excitedly, and looking over to make sure that I’m doing the same. Marcela has a hard time getting her to lie down during relaxation time or do yoga because she’s always sitting up to dance along with the music.

Yesterday at recess Alexa’s love for dance became even more apparent. Today is a national holiday in Costa Rica, celebrating the annexation of the Guanacaste province. So yesterday morning one of the preschool classes was having their snack time outside, eating food that’s traditional in Guanacaste, and playing music while they ate. They happened to be right next to the playground, so the music was blaring while Marcela’s class was at recess.

At some point during recess, a few of the teachers noticed that Alexa was standing in the middle of the playground, all alone, dancing to the music. Soon all the teachers were watching and some pulled out their cameras and phones to take videos of her dancing. I watched her for at least five minutes, but I know she had be dancing long before I started watching. She was totally doing her own thing and entirely focused on doing it. She just danced her little heart out and it was so amazing.

I’ve also noticed that one of the only times that all of the students are engaged (besides maybe recess) during the day is when Marcela is leading them in singing and signing along with the songs at the beginning of class. I love watching them all smile, laugh, wiggle, and sing along with the music. It really opens some of them up when their norm is to be very much withdrawn.

This is true for Nancy in particular. I’m fairly certain that Nancy is autistic. She doesn’t talk and doesn’t interact with the other kids much. Usually she sits quietly until she’s told to do something else. But when the music is on, she lights up. She follows along with the movements that Marcela demonstrates for them. She smiles and laughs. Her laughter is beautiful. There have been a few times that she has actually made and held eye contact with me while they’re singing. When the music is playing she’s a different little person altogether, completely full of joy.

Music has influenced my life so strongly. I know that without music, the relationships I’ve made through it, and the lessons it has taught me, I would be an entirely different person. I can’t help but think about how crucial it must be for these kids to have music in their lives. It allows them a way to express themselves and an opportunity to come out of their shells. I don’t know if I’ve witnessed many things in my life that are as beautiful as watching those two little girls experience music.

el centeno guell

 

Last Tuesday (the 16th) was the first day I went to my volunteer placement at the Centro Nacional de Educación Especial Fernando Centeno Guell (which is often just called “el Centeno Guell,” as I learned throughout the week!). I was expecting (based on my experience with ELAP in Spain) to learn how to get there, meet the person at the school that I would be reporting to, and have a chance to talk about what I would be doing during my time there. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I did learn how to get to the school, which was pretty important, considering that I would have to get there on my own every day. When Andréa (the ISA staff member who came with me) and I got to the school though, it turned out that they weren’t really expecting us and hadn’t received a form they were supposed to have received from ISA. So Andréa and I filled out the form and then left. I didn’t really even get introduced to the volunteer coordinator that I am supposed to report to (I later learned that her name is Doña Lily). It was a little disappointing to have gone all the way there but not have any more idea of what exactly I would be doing during my time here in Costa Rica.

The one cool thing about the outing was that Andréa took the time to show me around San José a little bit. We walked around the city center and she pointed out places like that National Theatre, a couple of museums, a few markets with lots of souvenir shops, and some other similar things. It was nice to have an idea of where to find the touristy types of things if I wanted to, especially the museums. We then went to the second ISA office here (which I hadn’t been to yet) so that I would know where it was for the ELAP meetings that are held every other week.

Saying I was nervous to head to Centeno Guell on Wednesday would be an understatement. Not only did I still not know exactly what I was getting myself into, but I was nervous about getting there on my own. I ended up getting there just fine (I take two buses every morning. It takes about an hour to get from the first bus stop to the school), and then sitting and waiting while Doña Lily figured out what to do with me. After about an hour, Doña Lily took me to the special education department of the school (there is also a department for the blind and another for the deaf/hearing impaired) and dropped me off with the teachers I would be spending the rest of the morning with.

Although I started in a classroom with three teachers and only three boys, it was the most intimidating and overwhelming group that I’ve worked with in the five days that I’ve worked at the school so far. Two of the boys were very autistic (Joel and Aaron) and the other had Down Syndrome (Randy). None of the them had any spoken language skills. Each one of them was a handful in his own way, but I realized pretty quickly that Joel was the most difficult of the three of them. When Kaylin (one of the teachers) was trying to start a lesson about the parts of their face with them, he refused to sit in his chair, and spent a lot of time throwing chairs around the room and pushing things off of the teacher’s desk. On top of that, Aaron kept trying to run away (I’ve been learning that this is a pretty common thing among autistic children).

To be honest, I felt pretty useless in that classroom. I had no idea what I should be doing to help because I have no experience with kids with special needs, especially severe cases like those boys are. For a little over two hours, I basically just stood there and waited to be told when to bring something to a teacher or to lock the door. At one point, Flori (the assistant teacher in Kaylin’s classroom) asked me if I was scared. I answered honestly and told her I was. She then explained to me that these kids were some of the most difficult in the school and that it was okay to be a little scared. If I learned anything that first day, it’s that the people (mostly women) who work in the special education department at Centeno Guell are extremely nice and compassionate. They are so encouraging and friendly, which made going back after that first day so much easier.

After lunch the students and teachers that are there in the morning leave and another group comes in for the afternoon, so I spent the afternoon in a different classroom. I was so relieved to discover that not all the classrooms are as intense as that first one was. In the afternoon I worked with Rebecca’s class, which consists five kids from ages 10 to 13 who are fairly independent. Working with them was night and day from working in Kaylin’s classroom. Most of the time I spent with them they were working on a craft, and later had recess. The most frustrating thing in that classroom was the fact that I had a lot of trouble understanding the students. There was one in particular that kept trying to talk to me and I had no idea what he was saying.

Needless to say, that first day was super overwhelming, especially in the morning. It was definitely scary to be in that room, and I spent some time wondering if I had made the right choice to come here and work in a special education center. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I hadn’t been expecting to be thrown into such an intimidating situation right away.

But despite the ways I felt overwhelmed that morning, there were some moments that were really beautiful, too. Like when Randy looked over at me from his chair and waved at me with his hand by his waist and smiled when I waved back. Or when Aaron came over to me while I was sitting down and hugged me and kissed the top of my head.

There are sweet moments like that every day, and I always look forward to those moments the most. I’m increasingly thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll learn.

first weekend adventures!

It’s time for blog post from Costa Rica: round two!

Last Friday, after having a brief orientation for ELAP (a couple powerpoints, mostly about how to be safe and what will be expected of me as an ELAP participant), I left with the ISA group going on the excursion to the Arenal Volcano. Lucky for me, Seidy (a wonderful ISA director) introduced me to a few girls who were going on the trip before we left. It turns out that we get along great, and I spent a lot of the weekend with them! It was really nice to finally meet people. I came almost a week after the “Summer 2” program started, so I hadn’t met anyone besides my roommate yet.

The drive to Arenal took about five hours. The first hour or so was fighting traffic to get out of the city, and most of the rest of the drive was on roads that twisted around quite a lot. It was an interesting ride, mostly because we were in a tour bus that was making hairpin turns and going over bridges that seemed to be pretty small! Surprisingly enough, I didn’t get car sick at all. I even enjoyed the views outside the windows from time to time! The scenery was so pretty! After awhile, we realized that we could see the volcano from the bus windows! As it turned out, Friday night was the only time the top of the volcano was visible and not obscured by cloud cover.

Arenal from my hotel room! I'm so glad I got this picture of it on Friday night!

Arenal from my hotel room! I’m so glad I got this picture of it on Friday night!

We drove to another hotel both Friday and Saturday nights for dinner, and maybe it was because we were all super hungry, but the food was delicious. Both nights there was a buffet with a wonderful variety of food and some really good fruit juices as well! (Have I mentioned that the fruit here is just wonderful?). Dinner Friday night was really great because I got to know Laura, Jenna, Alicia, and Amy a little better.

After dinner I ended up going back to my hotel room and crashing because I was still exhausted from traveling the day before and wanted to make sure I got enough sleep to be ready for Saturday!

Saturday morning we were up bright and early! Some people went horseback riding around the volcano, others went “canyoning,” and others either chilled at the hotel all day (there was a nice pool area) or went on their own hiking adventures. I had signed up to go canyoning, so that’s where I headed off to at 8:30 after breakfast.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the canyoning experience, but it turned out to be lots of fun! We got to rappel down three waterfalls and do a dry drop as well!

20130721-130735.jpg

We rode in a bunch of assorted trucks to get to the place where they keep their gear. On the way back I got to ride in the back of one of the truck you can see in the picture. So cool!

The drive there was very bumpy, but very pretty as well. We passed some places with great views of the landscape, and also some tico homes. There were plants everywhere!! Many had colorful flowers, and some just had huge green leaves. I think that was the coolest part of the drive: just seeing how green everything was!

Once we got to the place where the gear was, we all got into our harnesses, gloves, and helmets before one of the guides showed us how to rappel and gave us some safety instructions. And just like that, we were hiking down to the first waterfall! I actually don’t have pictures of the canyoning experience itself because we had to leave our things in the trucks, but there was a guide taking pictures of us and I think they gave copies of the pictures to one of the ISA students so hopefully I can track some down at some point!

If I remember correctly, the first waterfall was 165 feet tall! There were a lot of us, so even though I was near the front of the group I had to wait awhile before it was my turn to drop. Waiting was so nerve wracking! The closer I was to the front of the line, the more antsy I got. I could see the people ahead of me pushing off the platform and hear some of them screaming as they dropped. Then all of a sudden it was my turn, I got strapped into the ropes, the guide with the camera was telling me to smile, and down I went!

It was definitely a long way down, but it was really fun to rappel down next to the waterfall. For most of the drop I was beside it and only got sprayed with a little bit of water, but near the ground I swung completely under the water and got drenched! (I’m pretty sure the guides who were belaying at the bottom were doing this intentionally). When I got unhooked and went to join the other people who had already dropped, I was still shaking from the adrenaline rush. It was crazy to stand on the ground and look up to see where I had dropped from! I still can’t quite believe that I did it.

After that, waiting in line for the other drops was a piece of cake. The first waterfall had been the tallest. Rappelling down each waterfall was a little different, but never quite as exciting as the first one had been. I would have loved to rappel down that first waterfall over and over again. Waiting at the bottom of each waterfall for other people to come down and then hiking to the next one was actually pretty cool though. The waterfalls were beautiful, and getting the opportunity to take in the scenery was wonderful. Like I said before, everything is just so green!

I think the drive from the waterfalls to lunch was even more beautiful than the drive to the waterfalls had been. On the way there, a lot of the scenery had just been trees and greenery, but on the way back the trees opened up to reveal some really beautiful landscapes in the foothills of the volcano.

20130721-133546.jpg

I love the green of the landscape and the blue of the sky.

One of the best parts of the experience (besides everything previously mentioned, of course!) were the guides. They were so encouraging, upbeat, and friendly the whole time. It made an experience that could have been really terrifying, especially at first, very fun!

They fed us a great lunch and then the buses took us back to the hotel. From there, I went with a few people I had met before lunch to hike and see how close we could get to the base of the volcano on a path that was near the hotel. Although we didn’t get too close to the volcano, the hike was lots of fun. The changing perspective we got of the volcano was really neat, even though there was cloud cover, but I think my favorite part was finding leaf cutter ants! There were everywhere! Every few yards there would be a string of them marching across the path. Ants with leaves going one direction and ants without leaves going the opposite direction!

20130721-134647.jpg

Aren’t they just so neat? There’s a video of them marching along the ground on my Facebook page if you’re interseted in seeing them in action!

The rest of Saturday was pretty relaxing compared to the morning and afternoon. We swam in the pool at the hotel, and later I found Laura, who had gone on the horseback riding trip. Then it was time for another great dinner and a fairly early bedtime.

Sunday morning we were up early again for our morning trip to a waterfall. Even though I was tired and a little sore from rappelling, I managed to get up early enough to have time for breakfast. But I almost missed the bus because I was trying to dry out my still wet gym shoes with the blow dryer in the bathroom! They had been completely soaked the day before. I’m so glad I made it out to the bus in time because I would not have wanted to miss that waterfall!

The hike down to the waterfall was very steep, and made up of over five hundred steps, according to Seidy. When I first saw the waterfall from an outlook at the beginning of the hike, I thought it would take forever to get to the bottom. It actually didn’t take too long though, and it was totally worth it.

20130721-135504.jpg

The view of the waterfall from the overlook at the beginning of the hike.

When we finally got to the bottom, we were amazed at how beautiful it was. The water was such a gorgeous blue-green color. There was so much to take in.

20130721-135827.jpg

There was even a rainbow!!

And guess what? I didn’t just get to look at it, I swam in it, too! It was so relaxing because the water was so fresh and cool, but terrifying all at the same time because the current caused by the waterfall was so strong that it was almost impossible to stay standing if you could touch the bottom and had to stay in the same place if you were treading water. We were only able to stay for about 45 minutes, but I could have stayed there for hours. It was just so beautiful. Calm, yet full of constant movement. Relaxing, but also very intense. I didn’t want to pull myself away.

20130721-140430.jpg

And just like that we had to leave, hiking back up the five hundred stairs to get back to the buses. Although canyoning was exciting, I think that time at the base of the waterfall was my favorite part of the weekend. I just can’t get over how beautiful it was. The pictures don’t do it justice.

So there you have it! My first weekend in Costa Rica was definitely full of adventures. Although I’ve come to find that every day here brings some sort of adventure, even if it doesn’t cause the same adrenaline rush as rappelling or isn’t quite as breathtaking as swimming at the base of a gorgeous waterfall.