I found myself wondering why my parents were so hyped about sending me to a foreign country by myself for an entire month. I pressed my body tightly into the side of the plane, avoiding eye contact with the bubbly blonde flight attendant. She ignored my frigid body language and bounced over to my seat anyway. I desperately hoped there wouldn’t be any clones of Ms. Perky on my trip. All I wanted was to be left alone. Clearly she had other intentions. I could feel the warm blood rush to my face as I scrambled to collect myself, begging whatever g-d is out there to help conceal my fears.
Blondie wanted to chat. For some reason she was interested in the life story I just wasn’t in the mood to share. Biting my lip didn’t seem to help. First a small yelp escaped, and than the tears. What a great start. I couldn’t even survive the first ten minutes of the rest of my summer without becoming a sloppy mess. I kept thinking that the higher powers wanted to really push me to the limit that summer. The orange seatbelt sign flashed across the screen, pulling me out of my daze. We would be landing in San Jose, Costa Rica in approximately twenty minutes.
The next month soon became just a blur; my miserable plane ride seemed so juvenile in retrospect. Twenty other teenagers from all over would soon become some of my best friends. With open hearts, we embraced our differences and immersed ourselves in the native Costa Rican culture. Although we were all strikingly different, we all agreed that the village of Bonilla, Costa Rica, our summer home, was the smallest, most rural town any of us had ever seen. However, what it lacked in modern conveniences was made up in the openness, humility and beautiful humanity of the people.
The thirty-one villagers of Bonilla were quick to accept our motley crew as their own family. Together we worked to restore their one room schoolhouse, building new bathrooms, a cafeteria and performing other odd jobs around the schoolyard to help enrich the lives of children who were not as modern or materially fortunate as us. We spent hours playing with them after we had finished our work for the day.
The children taught me a new way to appreciate the meaning of friendship, compassion and tolerance. I learned how to overcome our language barrier and understand others, but most importantly I learned to understand myself.
I came to really see and appreciate the beauty of nature. Without the distraction of cell phones, TVs, or my computer, I began to notice the little things in life. I started to look for Mother Nature’s special gifts, which I would have overlooked before. The rain forest became my playground. Long vines morphed into swings, as my friends swung through the air like monkeys, giggling as they let go and plunged into the cool water beneath.
I began to openly and without judgment or fear accept others, as easily as the Bonillians had accepted me. I spent many hot days on the work site with a kind soul named Fabi. Fabi was quick to adopt me as his professional lata (roof) painter. I remember wondering how I would be able to work with a man who I could barely understand. My sub-par Spanish skills definitely would not help me comprehend his fast tongue. That first day, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fabi not only taught me how to use a paint roller, but also showed me how to take risks. As our relationship grew he constantly pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself to speak in his native tongue. Maybe the greatest lesson Fabi taught me was to trust myself and the others around me.
That summer, I became “una chica muy valiente,” – a very brave girl as Fabi fondly said. I had challenged myself in many ways that I never knew I could, and pushed myself to many limits. I even brought back Fabi’s enthusiasm for the Spanish language into my Fieldston classroom. Usually a more timid Spanish participant, I started to take more risks. Wherever life takes me, I know I will be able to meet and overcome the obstacles that will be thrown in my way, to a large degree because of the confidence my Costa Rican friends and my adventures bestowed in me.
As I finish this essay, I am searching my desk drawers for Fabi’s address. I want to reconnect, and thank him for all that he and his village taught me. The lessons of trust and openness I learned in Bonilla are forever embedded in my soul and engrained in my heart. How fortunate I am to have learned these lessons in such a wonderful country surrounded by life long friends.