Heather Conejo-Watt - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has always been somewhere I have wanted to visit ever since I was young as I am half Costa Rican - my dad and his family were born and grew up in San Jose. Even though I had the comforting knowledge that I had family in Costa Rica I was still apprehensive and nervous at the thought of traveling alone for the first time and living with a family whose first language is one that I speak very little of (many are surprised I can’t speak Spanish!).
However, when my host mother ran towards me and greeted me with open arms upon arrival at the family’s house my nerves and apprehension disappeared. She welcomed me as if I was her own daughter; this was the first thing that struck me: just how sincere and kind-hearted ticos are.
My Costa Rican Host Family
At first I was shocked at just how little English the family spoke as on my first day it seemed as if everyone else but me could speak fluently with the family and I couldn’t even ask what I was eating! It was less daunting though when one of my roommates told me that when she arrived she spoke little Spanish as well. From then on I made it a goal of mine to try and learn as much as possible in the 6 weeks I was to spend there. The family and other volunteers were so encouraging and helpful even if it meant repeating themselves. I grew to love learning the language as it was a great feeling when locals would seem shocked yet happy that you were trying to speak their language.
By the end of my stay I knew how to give directions, could shop in the local markets, order food in restaurants and actually understand my host mother with minimum hand signals needed! It was a proud moment when she told me that my Spanish had improved; I felt that my goal had been accomplished - even if I had only picked up the basics. I loved learning Spanish so much that it has inspired me to take it as a side subject with my course at university!
The food took some time to get used to as I am a fussy eater but my host mum would always worry when I wasn’t eating and ask me what I wanted. So she would cut up fresh fruit for me to have for breakfast rather than rice and beans. She even cooked pasta several times when she asked what I ate most at home, which was very sweet and really reflects just how the Costa Rican’s are – so hospitable and caring.
The tico attitude towards life really taught me a lot, as they live stress free and center their lives around family and friends rather than money and possessions. I was lucky enough to be there when it was my host mothers son’s and cousin’s birthday. Their birthdays are so different from the one’s we have back home. Before we ate our host mum said a prayer and even included my roommates and I in her prayers, thanking god for our presence and asked god to bless us all which was very heart-warming. The celebration was so family orientated, with much preparation went into a bbq and a big feast yet it was surprisingly simple - just many family members surrounded around the bbq with the host son playing the guitar while everyone sang a song about family and friends together. They did not need extravagant presents only each other.
My Teaching Placement
My teaching project was at Thomas Guardia Institute where I was teaching children aged 7 to 12. The children at the school were some of the kindest and caring people. As soon as I arrived they were so happy I was there that they greeted me with hugs. This kindness continued throughout my placement as every day I was welcomed with smiles and I would leave covered in stickers.
Even though I found it very difficult at first to talk to the children as they don’t speak any English, they were so keen to teach me about their culture and learn about mine as most of them had never heard of “Escocia” and just gave me blank stares when they asked me where I was from – I even had to show them on a map where it was! The teacher, Clara, who I worked with the whole time I was there was so helpful and often translated between the children and I. This was another thing that shocked me about the Costa Rican culture; the children treat their teacher with so much respect and look up to her as a sort of mother figure by giving her hugs, offering to clean the board for her and carrying her books from class to class. The teacher-pupil relationship seems much more personal than that of the U.K. which is such a great thing.
During my placement I helped the teacher with marking homework and even marked the children's exams in my final week. Clara would tell me what she wanted me to teach so I would go home and prepare flashcards, buy stickers for the children and have the translations ready so they could fully understand what they were learning. Drawing the pictures on the blackboard and writing out the English and Spanish word was the most successful as the kids seemed to understand very quickly.
It was so rewarding when even the kids who were cheeky and often misbehave were quietly doing their work and would be proud to show me their end result which I would reward with a sticker. It was also rewarding when the teacher seemed to learn that giving the children a picture and the translation was the best way for them to have fun and actually understand what they were learning as before she would just give them the English without any explanation. I felt like I was actually helping as the teacher was constantly saying how appreciative she was that I was there.
My last day at the school was very sad as I did not want to leave the friendliest and happiest children I’d ever met! They were so kind on the last day: giving me hugs, letters written in English and one girl even gave me one of her bracelets. I will never forget the children or my time spent at Thomas Guardia as some of my best memories are from that school.
I also taught an adult class for those who didn’t have many qualifications and were trying to get an English certificate. I found this so rewarding as they were so appreciative of my work. One person even asked if I could go 30 minutes before every lesson so he could work on his conversation skills as he needed to improve his English to get into university, I was more than happy to help! This is what I loved about the adult class - they constantly reminded us just how happy and appreciative they were to have a native English speaker teaching them.
Traveling at the weekends
When I wasn’t working at the school I would spend my time with other volunteers. Whether we were just relaxing watching the TV at home or enjoying the many bars, clubs and restaurants Liberia has to offer I was always enjoying myself! I even attended a salsa class at the local dance academy which was so much fun!
Getting to know volunteers from all over the world including Australia, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Bermuda and Norway were one of the highlights of my trip as I wasn’t just learning about the Costa Rican culture I was also learning about different nationalities through the other volunteers. We got to know each other more when we had days off and at the weekends we would travel far and wide.
I had never experienced anything like this in my life! Never had I stayed in a hostel and on my second weekend here I was staying in a hostel in Tamarindo with 11 other girls I had just met. Trips included learning to surf in the touristy town of Tamarindo where the waves are perfect, zip lining down a dry rainforest in Rincon de la Vieja, visiting the most beautiful waterfall (Llanos del Cortés) I have ever seen on Labor day, taking in the amazing views of the rainforest in Monteverde on the bus ride up the mountain, and of course sunbathing on playa Hermosa.
I also got the chance to visit some of my family I had never met before and had my own personal tour guide around San Jose which was very special and a lot of fun. We even saw a Latin American dance festival in the town of Itzkatzu. I was able to share this experience with my roommate Lauren which was even more special!
My advice to anyone who is hesitant about volunteering or visiting Costa Rica is don’t be - make the most of this amazing once in a life time experience: you will meet amazing people who will turn out to be great friends, you will learn about new cultures that books cannot teach, you will learn new things about yourself and you will look back on your trip as some of the best memories. The only regret I have is that I did not stay longer!