Saying goodbye was difficult for the students as their session came to an end, I just didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me. As I think about all the unforgettable experiences I lived in Costa Rica, I conclude that the pain of saying goodbye is worth those moments I lived. Sometimes we get so close to people, and the impact they make in our lives is so life-changing, that we can’t fathom the idea of potentially not seeing them again. We come across so many people in our lives, many for a very brief moment, like a drop of rain cascades down a leaf. Others become part of our journeys, embracing and supporting us through our growth, the way soil anchors the roots of a tree during its life-span.
Leaving was much more difficult than I anticipated; I had such beautiful encounters there. I had started to grow roots in its nurturing soil, and was pulled out of a place, I didn’t realize, I wasn’t ready to be pulled from. People there walked around with their hearts opened, literally zinging me with love. I was wrapped in love, not only by the people in Costa Rica, but also by the students I served and some of the adults I worked with. Of the students and the impact they had on my life I will write in a later blog.
The following are some of the little drops of rain that nurtured me during my stay in Costa Rica:
Don Gregorio tended to the volcanic mud baths in the Rio Negro Hot Springs that surround the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano. I had built a small connection with him during the few times I had been there with the students. He was a gentle, soft spoken man with an accommodating demeanor. He had hard working, brusque hands, callused and heavily worn by his experiences. The kind of hands that could hold on to the heaviest burden and caress the most diaphanous butterfly. In contrast to his hands, despite being an elder, his face was supple and radiant. Aside from a few fine lines on his face, his cheeks were like two perfectly polished Pink lady apples nestling his eyes, which had a child-like gleamer in them. He seemed to enjoy watching my antics as I struggled to adjust to the heat of the hot springs, clumsily scrubbed the dry clay off my skin, and cowardly committed to the cold river, all part of a detoxing sequence.
As I rounded up the students, I realized that that might be the last time I’d ever see that place again, and the last time I’d see Don Gregorio. In that instant, he approached me, grabbed me by my shoulders and looking into my eyes, said, “Bueno Muchacha, ya no vienes mas?” Confirming what I already knew in my heart – this would be my last encounter with him. “Cuidate, que Dios te bendiga. Eres una muchacha muy especial.” In his eyes, I saw his sincerity, and I also saw God, and the beautiful connection our two souls had made. I couldn’t help but to believe his words, not because they boosted my ego, but because there was a deeper source that told me so. Perhaps, because he seemed to believe it more than I did.
Doña Veronica was in charge of coordinating and preparing all meals for the program. Her coordination was no easy task when you consider all the dietary restrictions she had to adhere to when designing the meals. Some students were vegetarian, others vegan, still others were allergic to peanuts, kiwi, fish, dairy, even lentils. On top of that she was cooking for 52 people, of which 45 were very hungry teenagers. Every day, she showed up like magic, with a heart full of love, which manifested in the delicious meals she cooked, and a smile as radiant as the ablaze warm sunsets of Costa Rica. She knew exactly who needed to be served what, without looking at any notes, might I add. Most of her day was spent serving or preparing for the next meal, and yet she always had time to pause, look at us in the eyes, address us by our names, and ask us how we were doing. I don’t remember when I began hugging her, but it happened, spontaneously, the way the morning gives way to a new bloom.
The last week of the program, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. Being responsible for the well-being of 45 students 7 days a week had started to take a toll on me after six weeks, not to mention the challenging working dynamics that occurred when staff members also interacted with each other 7 days a week and lived on the same premises. Saturday morning, as we were headed out for our last weekend excursion with the students, unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, Doña Veronica called out my name as I was about to get on the bus. She pranced toward me, with her arms opened, and gave me an embracing, loving hug, the kind I looked forward to from my grandmother when I needed refuge from life’s complications. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed that hug; I needed her nurturing love to get me through the weekend. Being so far away, with people I had only met a few weeks before, had left me yearning for the unconditional love I was so used to back home. The kindness with which that hug was given blunted the challenges and intensity of the weekend.
Playa Naranjo is a secluded beach in Costa Rica, and in order to get to it by land, one must ride in a 4-wheeled vehicle with a vigorous suspension capacity through the forest for approximately an hour. The students were brought to this majestic place to surf, camp, and observe sea turtles nesting. As the sun prepared to descend behind the robust mountains, it began to tinge the clouds with golden hues of amber, cerise, and coral. Apposite to the direction of the sunset was the most brilliant, colorful rainbow I had ever seen in my life. I sat on the fine, bold volcanic sand marveled by this spectacle of God, pondering how I had gotten so lucky to witness that moment. I was filled with so much love, it began to pour out of my eyes. All of these amazing things in the world flowed inside of me like a river – they seemed to be a gift to me, like Doña Veronica’s hugs, and Don Gregorio’s words.
“Buenos Dias, Cristina. Pura Vida!” Was how he greeted me every morning with the most sincere and spirited smile I have ever encountered. Don Gradvin made me feel as if all of Costa Rica was smiling at me. He exemplified the phrase, Pura Vida, a term which literally translates to pure life, but has a more profound meaning for the Costarricenses. Pura Vida reminds us to be like a river and flow in the direction that life takes us; to persist the way the trees persist in the rainforest, but also to surrender, to let go and transform from what con no longer be, the way the host trees surrenders to the Matapalo trees, a strangling species, which envelops the host tree as it struggles for light in the darkest areas of the forest; and to remember that no matter how much or how little we have in life, life is here to be embraced and enjoyed. Don Gradvin was my hummingbird – he brought out the joy, playfulness, and enthusiasm for life in me, and in everyone that engaged with him.
He was one of the bus drivers that drove us everywhere. Aside from fulfilling his duties as a bus driver, he also gave of himself and made all the experiences so much more vibrant by participating alongside the mentors and students, whether it was shoveling gravel, wheelbarrowing cement, or making tamales, he was always present, allowing us to feel that we were the most important thing to him in that moment. Even the bus rides from the service sites were exciting. At the end of the day, exhausted as the students would be from the toil, they’d yell out, “49,” in Spanish. The number to their favorite song on Don Gradvin’s CD. They’d dance in celebration all the way back to home-base, where Don Gradvin would chant “Pura Vida” as each student got off the bus. The same words he told me as he bid me farewell from Costa Rica.
I am so grateful to God for bringing so much love into my life, whether it’s through people that exist briefly in my life or people that are on this journey with me. Even in the midst of being so far away from “home,” I felt God’s love through the people that manifested their brilliant light. Through Katia, the year-round administrative manager to the villa we were staying in, who invited me to stay at her house my last day in Costa Rica to celebrate Mother’s day (August 15) with her family, who also welcomed me with generosity and warmth. Through Alex, one of the mentors, whose big-brother presence, even though he was younger than me, made me feel supported and encouraged. Through Bernarda, one of the housekeepers, who despite the poverty and struggles in her life, was a vibrant and gregarious woman. She’d surprise me with specially made gallo pinto or hand-made corn tortillas. I appreciated her hands, and the smell of the maize when she’d make the tortillas, for in those moments, I was reminded of the way my grandmother poured her love into me through the food she made. I’ve felt her, as much as I felt God, in the small interactions filled with love that I experienced in Costa Rica. As challenging and exhausting as the program could be, there was hardly a day that passed by that didn’t offer Costa Rica magic – “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stood out in stark relief” to the stressors of the program.