Lauren Carbran - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Costa Rica
I arrived at the gate of the house where I would be living for the next month. I walked in and there my host mom was, hurrying in my direction, open armed and smiling. I took a glance behind me. Perhaps her groceries were being delivered? Instead, to my surprise, she embraced me like I had been her long lost daughter, stroked my arm and said ‘Hola’. I knew then that I would be happy here.
Living with the Ticos: My host family
When I learnt that my host family didn’t speak much English, I have to admit, I thought it would be a struggle. Having no recollection of Spanish whatsoever, I was extremely proud of what I had achieved by the end of my stay. My host family was the best Spanish teachers I could have asked for, and were the reason for my ongoing improvement. They were so enthusiastic for me (and the other volunteers I was living with) to learn the language, that each word spoken became a full- blown theatrical performance, like a constant game of charades, so that I would be able to guess what they were saying. In an instant I would repeat the word, realize what it meant and slot it into my vocab list. They helped me get so involved with the language, that at times I started thinking in Spanish and found myself naturally able to get by; whether at the supermarket or on public transport.
Rice and beans was on the menu for most meals on most days. Nevertheless, Costa Ricans are religiously devoted to their cooking, which meant that, in fact, the rice and beans was really rather tasty. Meat was usually served with every meal, as well as salad and vegetables, so all in all we were on a very healthy regime. If rice and beans doesn’t quite tickle your fancy, pasta is really your only other alternative when living with a family. But don’t fear, Liberia does have a Pizza Hut (hallelujah!!!) and various other restaurants, bakeries, sodas and bars in the center.
Living with my host family was a chance to become part of their family too. They were the host of many celebrations, whether it was a leaving party for a volunteer, a family birthday, or just dinner. Whatever the occasion, our house was always the location. Think ‘My big fat Greek wedding’ times ten - because at times I lost count of who was who. Costa Ricans are very family-orientated, and I soon realized that within Liberia there is a strong community spirit. There was something quite special about all the people who would pass by our gate day to day and just wave - it was a truly warming feeling of inclusion and familiarity, even though I was 5,427 miles away from home!
Birthdays are a big celebration for the Ticos, and I was lucky enough to experience a few. There was always live music from the family members, a BBQ, a feast of food, prayers and of course speeches. What was so noticeable throughout my stay was that Costa Ricans are always thankful and are always thanking. My host mom would include us, the volunteers, in her prayers - she would say thank you for letting her take care of us – and I found this extremely heart-warming. It emphasized how content these people are, even though they have far fewer opportunities and luxuries than us.
My Teaching Placement
My teaching project was at an elementary school called the Thomas Guardia Institute, which holds most of my fondest memories of Costa Rica. I was teaching boys and girls aged between 7 and 12, and assisting Louisa (their teacher) with homework, marking and exams.
The children were so inquisitive about my culture and were impatient to teach me about theirs. They were so friendly and caring towards me; they always wanted to make sure that I was ok. I was given hundreds of stickers on an hourly basis and there wasn’t a day that would pass without a warm welcome of hugs and smiles. What was so interesting and different from the British school standards was the way that the children treated their teacher; almost like a mother figure. They would hug her and walk with her to her next lesson and carry her books; she was basically an all-round celebrity.
Preparing the lessons and teaching the children was so rewarding. The kids had a passion to learn and were so proud of their work. Even the loudest and rowdiest children would take great pride in their work when it came down to learning English, and it gave me a huge sense of achievement when the whole class would work in silence on their own accord. I prepared flashcards and drew on the board each lesson, which proved the most successful as my Spanish was really more like Spanglish.
On my last day the children followed me to the gate of the school where I left for the last time, clutching the letters and drawings they had given me.
I was also given the opportunity to teach adult evening classes twice a week. These lovely people were keen to learn English as they recognized that it was so important. One man even traveled from Nicaragua each week to attend the classes. Costa Ricans are so eager to learn and it was a pleasure to help as, like always, they were so appreciative, and it went without saying.
If you are due to volunteer in Costa Rica, I would definitely take advantage of the weekends off. Projects Abroad really specialize in the social side of volunteering. There are social evenings, dinners and quizzes which are great ways to meet fellow volunteers.
On each weekend I went traveling with other volunteers and we became great friends. I first visited San Jose (a bit Americanized) and my other travels included Tamarindo – the best place to surf in Costa Rica, Nicaragua (Granada is a must-see), Monteverde- the rainforest, and Arenal, to trek beside the most active volcano in Costa Rica. Closer to Liberia there are a few beautiful beaches, the Llanos de Cortes waterfall (which is known to be the most beautiful in Costa Rica) and Ricon de la Vieja. If you want to relax by day and party by night, I would recommend you go to Bocas Del Toro in Panama, for not only the cool Caribbean culture, but also to take day trips to the breathtaking Red Frog beach and surrounding islands.
The best advice I could give to any future volunteer would be to make the most out of your time to travel - Costa Rica and its neighboring countries are easily accessible, truly breathtaking and an experience of a lifetime!