When I thought of Costa Rica, I thought of white sandy beaches, pristine water, and exotic animals. While I encountered each of those during my three weeks with The Road Less Traveled, it was the mountains that awed me.
I first noticed them as we (me and a group of teenagers I hadn't met until a few days prior) made our way to Bajo 52 Millas, a tiny village a few hours outside of San José. I think we were all nervous that day – we were going to Bajo, as it quickly became known, to renovate a schoolhouse. We would be living and working in the community. All kinds of questions ran through my mind:
Would we be viewed as intruders? Would I be able to speak Spanish well enough? What if a bug crawled into my sleeping bag? What if all the kids in the community hated us?
I quickly forgot all of these questions as we rounded a bend in the road. Suddenly, it was as if we were suspended in air and time. Fog swirled around us, but through it, I could see the mountainous landscape that surrounded us. The stony mountain faces mixed with the bright green foliage, blurred by the cloudy day and the speed of the bus into a beautiful kaleidoscope of color and texture. It was the most breathtaking thing I'd ever seen.
These mountains quickly became a constant companion to me in Costa Rica. It turned out that Bajo was situated in a valley encircled by mountains (and one active volcano, I later learned) from all sides. I never failed to be dumbstruck by the absolute beauty of Bajo; each time I took a break from my work, be it building a basketball court or painting walls, Bajo presented to me its exotic, lush greenery and exquisite surroundings. Always, the mountains presided over the scene.
I remember one morning toward the end of our stay in Bajo. For once, the neighborhood rooster hadn't woken me, but I was inexplicably awake before anyone else. I shrugged on my fleece, grabbed my journal, and padded out to the concrete ledge overlooking the fútbol field. Before me stood the imposing chain of mountains that, somewhere along the way, had become a symbol of all Costa Rica means to me.
My time in Costa Rica with The Road Less Traveled taught me so much. I learned how to cook for over twenty people, avoid bot flies, mix cement and express myself in Spanish. I made authentic empañadas, scored a goal in a fútbol game, swam underneath several waterfalls, and grew accustomed to ice cold showers and putrid smelling clothes. I kayaked to the songs of howler monkeys, played with wild hermit crabs, and learned first-hand what to do when your raft flips over on a Class Four rapid.
More profoundly, I learned that humanity is so intrinsically the same that cultural barriers can almost always be crossed by respect, patience, and a desire to learn. We are all the same, no matter what country we inhabit or what language we speak. Fear of differences should never keep us from trying to communicate and understand each other – in this way, we can enrich each other's lives.
Walt Whitman, a great American poet, once advised, “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
Looking at those mountains in Bajo, I realized that perhaps The Road Less Traveled’s greatest lesson to me was one of self-assurance and inner harmony, one of true happiness.
And as the sun peeked over the mountains and began to burn away the haze of dawn, my soul was not only cool and composed before the universe, it was bursting with pure, ecstatic joy. -McKinley S.