A Tangible Reminder of Costa Rica


by Nikki Hauspurg

This past June I found myself sandwiched into a middle seat on United Flight 914 departing from San Jose, Costa Rica, destined for Dulles International Airport, exhausted, yet exhilarated. I wondered how I appeared to my fellow passengers, clutching a glutted backpack of Free Trade coffee, dirty and disheveled, and feeling as though my skin was at least three layers thicker than when I had first arrived weeks earlier. I carried with me the constant exposure to sun, dust, and mosquito repellent. As I adjusted my seat, careful not to hit my bandaged knee on the tray table, I began to reminiscence about my Global Volunteers experience. I had been part of a team whose goal was assist in the creation of a community center for the impoverished populace of Canitas, Costa Rica.


Nikki in Costa Rica

I had been nervous the first day as I met my teammates, realizing that as a rising high school senior at 5’3” and 100 lbs, I was not only the youngest team member, but also the smallest in stature. As the team leader described the mission of our American team—an endeavor that aimed at laboring with, and not merely for, the residents of Canitas. I tried to imagine how I could make a substantial contribution to this international effort . While initially intimidated, at the conclusion of my first day at our workplace, a dusty and dank construction site within a pastoral village of Costa Rica, I had already begun to witness different ways in which I could contribute to our group’s mission.

Although the youngest team member, I realized I was the most proficient in Spanish, and thus became vital to the team dynamic in establishing connections between the American and Costa Rican workers. In translating jokes, asking for tools, and working with female villagers to cook tamales for lunch, I came to appreciate my understanding of the native language. It facilitated new friendships and supplemented my team in the work place. Furthermore, I began to value my small frame, for I discovered that in working with a group of sturdy, male Cost Ricans to construct the septic system for the community center, my size became an asset in maneuvering into narrow pits in order to connect PVC pipe and retrieve fallen tools. During this service opportunity, I also realized that physical labor does not merely require physical strength. Once, I was assigned the task of using a pickaxe to penetrate a 6” cinder block wall in order to connect the PVC from the outside septic system to the inside fixture. The tenacious Costa Rican locals made the task look easy, piercing through the wall with multiple blows that resulted in a rough opening. However, the PVC would not fit. By using a chisel and hammer I found I could direct my strength effectively, and refine the rough opening into a near-symmetrical hole that was just wide enough for the PVC pipe to be connected, with a minimal amount of patchwork.

My experiences in Canitas were not solely based upon grunt work, however. Through this volunteer opportunity, I learned that in order to spur progress, and effectively contribute to a community on a global scale, one must take personal risks. One must be immersed in a new culture. While I learned lessons of self-worth and the value of a strong work ethic, perhaps most significantly, I came away with an appreciation of an Ethiopian proverb I once came across: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” While my personal skills may have contributed to the team dynamic, it was the union of each teammate’s contributions that made our volunteer efforts a success. Beyond anything I could have contributed to Canitas, I gained the immeasurable gift of awareness: I realized the vastness of the world around me, and began to consider how I could contribute on a larger scale.

As I sat in my plane seat, I reflected on one last memory: I had tripped on an uneven gravel road while carrying construction materials to the work site, and in doing so split open my knee. Both my American and Costa Rican teammates rushed to my side to lift me up and help me to a neighbor’s home. As I apologized (awkwardly, bilingually) and thanked them, they orchestrated a small-scale surgery on a kitchen table. As they removed as much gravel as was possible and bandaged my bleeding knee, I realized how much I would miss the optimistic collectivism I had experienced in Canitas.

It has been three months since I left Costa Rica, but as I palpate the tiny fragments of gravel that remain embedded in my knee, I know I will always have a tangible reminder of this trip, which solidified my goal of pursuing a career in foreign service.


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