After High School, I went to work as a volunteer in Costa Rica, a small Central American country with incredible nature and amazing people. To read why I chose to do that, and how I spent the first two months, read this post.
The final month of my stay, I worked as a social worker in El Silencio, a small village pretty much in the centre of the country, located in the middle of the mountains and countless square miles of palm oil plantations.
The special thing about this village: It’s a cooperative, meaning it operates as a firm-owned business whereby members work for their own benefit. In this case, this clearly serves the puprose of social and economic aid to enhance social development in the region.
Here is a brief summary of the cooperative’s history:
The land on which the property of El Silencio rests was formerly a banana plantation belonging to the United Fruit Company. In 1955, 700 hectares of banana plantations were destroyed when the Rio Savegre flooded. Between 1955 and 1972, the United Fruit Company rented out the land. Though they had no claim to the land, the local farm workers were devoted to the region, occupying the land and farming it. Eventually, the government sold the land to the local farm workers. 42 families registered as official associates of the cooperative, living and working together for a common cause, and Coopesilencio was established in 1973. Nowadays, 80 families benefit from services such as schooling, a supermarket and café, offices, and various agricultural and eco-conservation projects. In 1996, the eco-tourism business was launched with the construction of forest trails and a lodge, consisting of 10 cabins, a restaurant, and bar. They have since established an animal rescue center that provides rehabilitation services for abandoned, maltreated, and injured animals in the South Pacific region of Costa Rica.
In this village, voulnteers have the opportunity to work for cost and logis in many different areas. During their stay, they live with a local family, eating their meals with them and experiencing their culture, while working during the day to support the village. Old school buses from the U.S. are often shipped to South (and Central) American countries for further use. My host family.
The houses were pretty funny: They often only had three walls (mine didn’t have a back wall), and the walls separating rooms didn’t go up to the ceiling, meaning you could always hear whatever went on in the rest of the house. This stay really made me appreciate the little things 😀
Some of the tasks volunteers could choose from/ had to do (important: Sometimes, we could choose what we liked best, but in the even of an urgent issue, there was no question about preferences):
– Work in the animal rescue centre
– Work at the palm oil plantations
– Maintenance projects (such as renovating the supermarket or the cemetry)
– Work on the cow farm
– Work in the kindergarden/ primary school
– Work in the supermarket
During my 1-month stay, we were usually around 10 volunteers. Naturally, some of them were more popular than others. Helping out at the kindergarden was highly requested, for example. I personally had the chance to go there once, and it was amazing! The children are so joyful, and not at all shy! They immediately intergated me into their play, and got really attached to me. After that day, I could not go down the street wihtout one or two children running towards me and hugging my legs 😀 One girls kept drawing pictures for me. I kept them all 🙂
Working on the palm oil plantation was really interesting, as I learned how the oil is produced, and how much work is in every single litre of it! But it’s hard work: One has to get up at a round 5 am, as this is the only time where it’s not 40°C, then tos of fruits need to be collected, sorted and, after lunch break, prepared for shipping. There is a reason why this is generally a work done by the men, as it is physically really tiring.
Working in the animal rescue centre was awesome! It was naturally also hard work (especially in the Costa Rican heat!), but I love animals, and being around them. Every day, we would get up early to feed the birds and monkeys, then we would clean their cages, fix whatever is broken, and prepare more food. We were incredibely jealous, as the Ticos (that’s what the Costa Ricans call themselves) didn’t have a lot of fruit as they are considered a luxury, but the animals got a wide vairety ranging from pineapple to watermelon and papaya 🙂 Some of the stories were hartbreaking, though: Some of the animals were on rehab as their previous owners had fed them alcohol to make them more devote. Others had very bad injuries and wouldn’t let anyone near them. Knowing they now had a better future was amazing.
I was incredibely fortunate: Since I spoke Spanish pretty fluently, thus being able to properly communicate with the Ticos, and also was pretty good at horseback riding, I got to work on the cow farm for the majority of my stay (which meant I got speared from unpleasant tasks such as cleaning the cemetry/ supermarket 😀 ). I loved it! In the early morning, we would get all the milk from the cows, fill it in plastic bottles and then deliver it to the households- by riding a horse 🙂
Then, we would ride back to the stables and direct the cows through the endless palm oil plantations to meadows where they could graze. On the way, I would do races with the son of the cowboy- well, until my horse almost fell due to the slippery ground 😀
Then I would have a break until the late afternoon, where we would jump back on the horse to get the cows in for the night. Being a cowgirl was awesome! The underground was often very difficult to ride on: Steep hills, rivers which the horses had to swim through (with us on their backs!) to cross them, and slippery meadows with hidden holes all over. I learned so much during this time! Also, whenever we saw a ripe fruit (be it bananas or papayas) hanging off a tree, we would just grab them and eat them straight away- how can a fruit be any riper?! Also, a daily kick of adrenaline is pretty awesome 😀
Moreover, I was ablle to witness the birth of a lot of piglings, as well as I saw how a little baby cow was born!
That being said, this is obviously a job which is not available for many volunteers due to the required skills, as it can get pretty dangerous.
In the evenings, all the volunteers would usually gather in the village’s only restaurant, where we would listen to music, use the pool and have a few drinks 🙂 Also, in my spare time, I did a lot of walks through the incredible nature of Costa Rica.
Moreover, I got to know a few guys who organised tourist trips to the river to do rafting- and I got the chance to join them whenever there was a free space (for free!), which was pretty awesome 🙂
I had a great time in the village. My family was very open and helpful, and willingly integrated me in their daily live. The only thing I will never get used to are the telenovelas, which are CONSTANTLY on TV 😀
Moreover, I highly support the idea of this project, as this encourages the Ticos to improve their situation through self-help, the only way that is truly sustainable.
Also, this allowed me to see more of Costa Rica than just the beaches.
If you’re interested and want to know more, check the village out here. Also, I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have!