Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pura Vida

Just about one week ago, at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 30, we pulled back onto campus at Buena Vista University. We went back to the comfort of our own beds, American meals, hot water, and our daily routine. While our lives have gone back to normal, we cannot say we have remained the same. 

The phrase pura vida is used often in Costa Rica. It is translated literally as "pure life," but it means so much more than that. It speaks to the full life in Costa Rica. The easy going, not controlled by a wristwatch, way of life. Being immersed in that way of life, even for just a week, changes a person. Spending a few days helping preserve the animal life in the area helps widen our perspective. If you have been keeping up with our blog, you are well aware of how we spent our week in Costa Rica. If you have not been keeping up with our blog, you can always go back and read more!

As we transition back into our lives in this northwestern corner of Iowa, thoughts of Costa Rica remain with us. While we may, in time, forget names and other details, there are many things we will never forget. Beans and rice, for one. We all have an appreciation of the simple diet enjoyed by many Costa Rican families. As students in Storm Lake, we occasionally whine about not having an Applebee's in town. We forget that many areas of the world, including Costa Rica, live off the same basic meal each and every day. 

We will remember the importance of the environment around us. From the animals to plants to our protection of them, we must learn to live within our means and conserve the natural beauty of the world. The smallest of efforts from each of us can have a much larger impact when grouped together. Let us start to emphasize the importance of leaving this world a better place than we inherited it. 

Speaking of leaving the world a better place than we inherited it, the problems surrounding us are much more than environmental. In communities around the world we have people facing real problems every single day. For some of us, it may have taken a trip 3,000 miles south to open our eyes, but we have come home with a new perspective. A perspective that gives us a passion to be engaged in our community. A perspective that allows us to put the needs of others in front of our own. A perspective that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that our way is not always the best way, and that there are things more important than checking Twitter on our smartphones every 5 seconds.

Pura Vida,
Michael, Team Costa Rica

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Big Picture

Today is the first day back in the swing of things with classes and all of my other obligations. It is kind of difficult to deal with because I am still processing everything that I experienced while in Jamaica. I have a hard time being sympathetic when individuals complain about the smallest things that go wrong in their lives, which I know that is something that I do as well. I just wish that more people would be aware of how blessed we are to be able to take care of ourselves and live our lives the way that we want to. Some people do not get this opportunity.

I am sure that my frustrations will go away soon, because this is the society that we live in, and other around me were not a part of this experience. I think more about this trip and have yet to come to any solid conclusion as to what this whole experience meant to me. One thing that I do know for sure is that no matter where life takes me, I want to be helping people. I finally made the connection last night when I was thinking about everything. My thoughts took me back to my theory on donating my hair, which is something that I do every three years. My logic is that I can grow my hair, so I should give it to people who cannot. I finally made the connection that I should help people that cannot help themselves, whether it is feeding people or clothing people, they all need help in some way.

I find that using my skills and abilities is something that I would be able to contribute greatly to helping others. Maybe someday, I will be able to use my knowledge of athletic training to help people who need it. I believe that service could be small or large, and everyone is able to participate. This was evident at the children's home when the older and more physically capable children would help the younger ones. It was great to see this bond that is formed and the responsibilities that the older ones can carry. One of the older and more capable children not only helped feed the younger children, but he mopped the floors everyday for the house moms in this cottage.

The biggest thing that I have learned from this trip is that service is something that everyone can do, and should do if you are capable. I have also learned to never underestimate the abilities of an individual based on appearance. Some of these individuals look as if they do not have a lot going on in their heads and they appear to be very unaware of their surrounds, but I quickly learned that I was wrong. Some of these children had so much to awareness, but they just couldn't move their bodies. I have also learned to not stress so much about the little things that happen in my life. My life is actually quite blessed, but sometimes I get bogged down in the small details that don't go exactly as I planned. This trip has made me extremely humbled by the fact that I am able to care for my basic needs, because I have now seen people who are unable to. And the amazing thing was that they were still extremely happy with their lives. Despite being unable to move their bodies and unable to feed themselves, these children still smiled and laughed and enjoyed their days.

I need to start looking at the bigger picture instead of the small details that may go wrong, or not exactly as planned. Everything will work out in the end, I have complete faith in that. This was the most challenging trip that I have ever been on, but I believe that it was the most rewarding as well. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lasting impressions

This AWOL trip is the last trip I will take as a BVU student. Traveling has been one of the most important and influential aspects to my education at BVU. My experience at West Haven has been the most mentally challenging trip I have had the privileged to go on. It was challenging for me to prepare for this trip because I didn't have much experience working with disabled people. I didn't know what to expect or how I would react.

After reaching West Haven, it was very evident to me that I wasn't mentally prepared to interact with people that have severe disabilities. I felt awkward. I felt scared. I felt hungry to be able to help, but I didn't know how. I soon realized that I could help by simply being there. By feeding someone who can't feed themselves. Even though it was awkward for me at first, it was a very humbling experience. My help with this seemingly rudimentary task, helped lift the work load from the staff. Sometimes all I was able to do and all I needed to do was sit with someone in a wheelchair or who was bedridden. I found it easy to fill voids left by overloaded employees and random chaos.

In the end, I was as prepared as I could be. My preparedness didn't mean that it was easy or that I wasn't challenged. It was challenging for me to wrap my mind around how the facility functions at this capacity, how the disabled people's thoughts were constructed, what they were thinking about, and how to solve some of the problems that still plague West Haven to mention a few. I found how I fit into the picture for the week, but I struggled to find my take away message. What could I get out of this experience besides lending a helping hand? I found that I physically saw unconditional love. I learned the power of love and saw it first hand. This will be something I weave into my everyday life.

I also stepped out of my comfort zone. I tend to think that I have a rather expansive comfort zone that is rarely challenged, but I humbly learned on this trip that it isn't too hard to find populations or experiences that are still uncomfortable for me. I can conquer my fears associated with being uncomfortable and skillfully find my niche.

Lastly, I learned yet again that I wear blinders in daily life and definitely while traveling. There is no way that I will be able to understand or be aware of every issue present in my community and abroad, but I can be aware that there are many issues out there and I am often not getting the full picture by analyzing one situation or experiencing one trip. The world is interesting, and it will only become more interesting as my knowledge of the world around me becomes more expansive.

The World's Riches

No service. That's what I read in the top left-hand corner of my iPhone. It was the first time I actually realized we were in a foreign country. Ironically enough, we were there to serve. I was on a mission to explore the culture of Jamaica. Unfortunately, we only had a week to cover what seemed like such a daunting task for the time given. We landed in Montego Bay, a beautiful area, but also heavily populated by tourists. It made me uncomfortable to be labeled as a tourist. Not that taking vacations is a bad endeavor, but a certain level of cultural ignorance is associated with tourism that I wasn't okay with. I wanted to break that stereotype and immerse myself in a different way of life that I wasn't familiar with.

There's a lot of pride in the colors of Jamaica. Black is for the people, Yellow is for the sun, Green for the plantation, and Red for the blood that unites us all. Peace, love, and unity are powerful words and are echoed in popular reggae music. Football (soccer) and cricket are of the most popular sports. After watching a game of cricket on TV, I still don't understand much other than a "home run" is worth 6 points. Previously under British colonization, driving is done on the left side of the road. It's normal for people to just pass and honk instead of letting up on the gas pedal. They also don't allow self-serving gas pumps. People will stand in the middle of four lane traffic selling goods such as bottled water. It was quite a shock to see the prices at the grocery store. They use a different form of currency, so a $10 item would be labeled at roughly $1000 Jamaican. 

We took a bus to our service site, and the ride up was interesting to say the least. Roads were as narrow at points as one-way streets. They winded tight up around corners with people casually walking on the side of the road. Again, drivers don't slow down, so it was a little nerve-racking. The only time they would is to go over the many pot holes in the road. You could easily see a shift from privilege to poverty as we got further from the bay and up the mountain. For example, there was a man dressed in garbage bags walking alongside the road. On our way to zip line, one of the tourists actually pointed at him and laughed; we were in disbelief.

People go to Jamaica for different reasons, and I understand that, but I think there's a genuine concern for humanity in everyone. For whatever reason, we may get caught up in our own lives that we don't see the bigger picture. You'll find in the long run that it's difficult to find real substance in a self-serving life. If you don't believe me, then tell me why happiness isn't exclusive to the people with the most money. The quote for AWOL this year was "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." This world doesn't need an abundance of rich people living lavish lifestyles. What this world needs is people living for each other, and in return, you'll find yourself wealthier than you ever thought possible... and no one can take that away.

The trip I applied for was different than the one I experienced. I initially thought we were going to be running around with little kids that were orphaned. I then found out we were going to be working with kids that were physically and mentally disabled. There were cases of down syndrome, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, and even autism. We didn't know much about the kids or what we were going to be doing with them. Upon arriving at West Haven, we found out that some of the "kids" were in their 30s. What happens is that some parents think it's taboo if their child is different, and they abandon them. We also learned that not all of the residents were orphans. Some parents don't have the time or resources to take care of a disabled child 24/7. I helped feed one man, Dwight, who was 38 years old, blind, and physically disabled. Basic necessities that we don't even think about become difficult tasks for some of these individuals.

One of the biggest takeaways is just being more comfortable around people who are different. Factors such as age, skin color, culture, or even physical/mental ability shouldn't create barriers to interact with each other; we are all one blood. This trip challenged me to have an open mind and adapt to situations out of my control. It also made me stronger in my faith. I learned that a prayer doesn't have to be this complex form of worship, but can simply be "Jesus. Amen." If I make myself transparent, I can truly live the way I'm supposed to and create meaningful relationships. Our team grew together, and we'll always have this experience to share with each other. I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve the people of Jamaica, and maybe someday I'll be back.

In service,


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Flying Home

We are currently waiting at the San Jose International Airport for our 1:25 pm flight to Minneapolis. This morning, we started our day at 7 am with a walk to a nearby cafe for some Costa Rican coffee. Unfortunately, when Costa Rican coffee shops say they open at 7 am, they mean sometime within an hour or so of that. We waited until 7:15 and then headed back to the hostel for breakfast - coffeeless.

We were able to get coffee back at the hostel with out breakfast, which was fresh fruit and toast. We sat on the 4th floor of our hostel overlooking the Alajuela/San Jose area. It is a gorgeous day in Costa Rica, sunny and only about 80 degrees. After breakfast, we took a short walking tour with Jorge (our guide for the week). He showed us a couple of landmarks and interesting buildings, including an elaborate church.

We spent about an hour browsing the local Alajuela market, which had raw and cooked meats, fruits, souvenirs, and other purchasable goods from the area. Many of us found interesting trinkets to take home with us. We also stopped at a supermarket for some Costa Rican coffee. Most of us loaded up on coffee to take home with us, some purchasing as many as 5 bags of coffee grounds.

After packing up our purchases, we loaded the van one final time to head for the airport. We arrived at about 10:30 am, in plenty of time for our 1:25 flight. We waited through 3 lines: one for a passport check/exit tax (which nobody warned us about, but apparently they don't want us leaving their country), one for our boarding passes, and one for security. 

We board at about 12:30 pm (just over a half hour from now), and we land in Minneapolis at 8 pm US Central time. We plan on stopping to pig out on some classic American food. 

Thanks for reading - see you stateside!
Michael & Team Costa Rica

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Last Day

Today was our final day in Jamaica, the time has gone by so fast! We got to spend the day exploring Jamaica. We went zip lining in the morning and went snorkeling in the afternoon and finished out the day with a nice dinner, last minute shopping, and reflection.
Zip lining was absolutely amazing!! It was so fun to be able to fly above the trees and soak in all the beauty of the mountains. The tour guide was very good at getting smiles on our faces and easing our nerves before we started. The first line was short and slow but as we moved through the next four lines, they got longer and faster. It was a very humid day and pairing that with walking up different mountain trails made for a tiring morning. We were thankful that they cut us fresh fruit after the second line. The fruit was so fresh and delicious! It's amazing how different it can taste naturally. We finished up the final lines and headed to the inn with smiles.
At 2:30 we headed to the resort that had the catamaran where we would snorkel. We were lucky enough to join the church group that we volunteered with at West Haven. It was fun to interact with them in a fun and leading environment. The clouds and rain did not stop us from going out snorkeling (in fact I was selfishly glad to see the sun behind the clouds because it meant I just might get out of Jamaica without sunburn!). We got to see some amazing fish with so many different colors. The clearness of the water makes it easy to see all the creatures of the ocean! 
We closed out our night with one final reflection and I was excited to hear that our final thoughts about the trip still focused on service and West Haven, not on the zip lining and snorkeling. It's amazing how close our group has grown over the past week and I am so blessed to have formed new friendships with these amazing people! Thanks to everyone who supported me on this trip and thank you to all who do the behind-the-scenes work for is an amazing program that is changing lives.

The final countdown...

You last heard from us yesterday morning as we started day 2 at the Matapalo Elementary School. So much has happened since then, so here is an update on what we have been up to.

As we started day 2 at the school, we were hoping to have more time dedicated to our original idea of teaching the kids about conservation and environmentalism. Nevertheless, we came to the conclusion that our goal in working in Costa Rica through AWOL was to serve at the feet of the people around us, and if we could serve the schoolchildren of Matapalo in any way, we would do whatever it took: teaching, playing, laboring, or just being a smiling face for the kids.

We all started working outside to finish our projects from the day before. Ashley, Bonnie, and Natalie worked hard to plant a tree. Logan, Ariana, Justin, Tabby and I helped trim banana trees. Dale, Ellen, Claire, and Charlotte helped finish the garden from the day before and plant cilantro. We also dug holes and placed signs throughout the schoolyard, dug and placed tires into the ground for the kids to play on, and spent plenty of time playing games and running around with the kids.

After lunch, the school had a YouTube presentation prepared for the kids about environmentalism and conservation in Costa Rica. It was nice to see our efforts tie in with the classroom activities, even if it was through a simple video. We were all finished at the school by about 1:30 pm, and after cleaning up and changing, we headed to the beach. We swam, relaxed, and stayed until sunset for the second straight day. A few of us had too much fun taking on big Pacific waves as they crashed into the coast. Costa Rica is a truly beautiful place. 

We enjoyed another Costa Rican meal and headed home to clean up, reflect, and relax. This morning, we woke up at 6:30 (or before for many) to start packing and cleaning. At about 8:30, we were all packed and loaded in the van, ready to head out of Matapalo. 

Today was our "fun" day. I put it in quotations because every day has been fun, but today was dedicated to adventure. We ate a breakfast of toast and fresh fruit, then headed to the rain forest for a zip line canopy tour! The tour was incredible, with 6 zip lines ranging from 40 to 900 meters, a slightly terrifying repel (ask Ashley, she screamed... A lot), and a rope bridge, we all had a great time. We also watched one of the canopy tour guides, Freddy, pick up a giant tiger ant and let it pinch him. You should probably google "tiger ant" and see the images; they are scary creatures. We heard and saw movement of monkeys, that was exciting enough.

We enjoyed a fantastic lunch after the canopy tour, and took off for our hostel in Alajuela. We are about ten minutes from the airport in San Jose, and will have time for some tourism and shopping at local markets tomorrow morning. Tonight we had pizza for dinner, which was interesting after a week of rice and beans. The 10 students walked around town for a few hours, stopping at a few places to try various food and drink items. We even sat in a local park and listened to live music for a few minutes, but the timing was poor on our part and they quit playing after a short while. We are all back and safe at the hostel, relaxing, playing cards, and excited for a few more hours tomorrow. 

This will likely be our final post from Costa Rica, but check back in a couple days to get a recap of our final few hours here and our travels back to the states. We land in Minneapolis at 8 pm tomorrow evening, and will be back on campus at BVU during the early hours of Sunday morning. Thanks so much for reading and keeping up with us!

Buenas Noches,
-Michael and Team Costa Rica