By Julia Greenbaum, a participant on the URJ Camp Newman Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica trip
It’s as if my outlook on life keeps unraveling stronger each day, especially since today was our first real work day.
Today, we had nothing other than fabulous rice and beans along with eggs and sweet fruit before we ran to the bus with eager and anxious faces. After a quick drive, we got to a local community that was run down but filled with people whose energy and enthusiasm were high. Similar to yesterday, people would wave and smile as we passed by. We stopped at the house of one of our guide Pedro’s friends to put down our bags, and then a local explained the history of the well-known city we were in.
Something that amazed me above all was how this area used to be nothing. Owned by a landowner, in 1933 people marched in, and made a town for themselves, despite all they didn’t have. It really goes to show how hard working and determined all the Costa Ricans are.
After petting the millions of dogs we saw and screaming “hola!” to all the niños, we walked to our destination – dirt in an alley. Our job was to build a street, and no, not with a cement truck, not with a tow car to bring sand over, but simply with our hands, shovels and buckets (identical to how most the streets in this area were built).
We were put into groups: one for shoveling and bringing over rocks, one for shoveling and bringing over sand, one for putting the cement in this mush pot, and one for mixing everything together. We all tried out each of these stations alongside a few locals who came to help. They made it look so much easier then it truly is. Whether it be shoveling to mix water into this mixture, or pulling your back muscles to carry rocks over, this job was anything but easy. But as for enjoyable, it definitely was, due to the smiles and “muchas, muchas gracias!” from all the neighbors seeing a future paved road in sight.
After this mixture was made, the locals would smooth it out over wire to make the flat cement that takes three weeks to dry. After two hours of work, we all were exhausted and went back to the house for a Mexican sandwich, chips, bananas and mango juice.
What happened during our little break was probably the most impactful part of my day: meeting the local niños. From hearing stories of other friends of how happy and friendly these kids are, I had something in mind, but nothing like this. Even with my little Spanish, the kids and I played and laughed. I connected with one boy, Adyeman, more than anyone. We played tag, he taught me a hand game, and we both talked about our love of sports.
It amazed me how accepting and considerate he was to me. As we were leaving, I explained in Spanish how sad I was to leave my new best friend. He said I was his favorite friend, and ran up to hug me tight. I was honestly speechless. To think that a little seven-year-old boy could have such a big heart, mine was melting. I said he was my brother and his smile back at me was the happiest smile I had seen. His stomach was rumbling, his shirt had a hole, he was always outside because there wasn’t room to play in his house, yet he still managed to be the happiest kid I ever met: pura vida.
When it was time to go back to work, I said, “arriba,” and Adyeman jumped on my back as his friends and the rest of our group made our way back to the alley. The little niños would seriously grab your shovel from you, and show you how it’s done, digging harder then we could! They obviously were experienced. To compare these seven year olds to the ones back at home, they seem so much more mature already, without any school even. For example, one of the five-year-old girls, Monica, was walking on some rocks, tripped and fell. I ran over to her with the instinct that she was going to start crying. Instead she stood back up, had a frown on for a second, brushed sand off her, and kept running. I stopped her to make sure she was okay, and saw some scratches up and down her hand. I asked her if they hurt and she said, “I’m good.” I poured some water on it, and she acted perfectly fine. If this was any five year old in our country, they’d start bawling and freaking out. The difference is astounding. The obvious differences were how all the kids weren’t shy at all to say, “hi,” they were very accepting of us and our horrible Spanish, how they made the best of what they had, and taught me how laughing should be easy.
As we kept working, local adults would pass by and smile and thank us. Ever since I was young, I loved helping, whether it was with my brother’s homework or at mitzvah meals, but I never exactly knew why. Now, I know. A lot of times, we aren’t completely sure if we did our best, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in life. This, volunteering work, gives you a sense of assurance that you did something right. From the locals thanking you graciously, to the huge smiles on the little kids’ faces as we gave them ice cream cones, nothing can compare to this feeling of knowing you did good. Before today, work was a word I ignored whenever I had the chance. However, now that I see work truly does pay off in numerous ways, pass me that shovel, hand over the pencil and book, I’ll get it done appreciatively and knowingly.
Saying goodbye to this city of La Capario was so sad, especially saying bye to my little friends, but I definitely was ready to jump in the shower after all this dirt.
We all rinsed off, and then went for a swim in the pool. At our Costa Rican dinner, Pedro warned us of a surprise coming our way after our meal. We walked to the outside patio, and all of a sudden a guy says “shoulders up, down, up, down, now swing those hips, then hands in!” We were going to be taught the salsa.
Although we laughed like crazy at each other, everyone’s true self came out in the way we all got down the salsa, and our bonds grew even tighter. Whether it was the partner dip, or the line dance cha-cha, we were all smiles. Even Pedro grabbed my hand and gave me a spin and showed his moves. Everyone was a big, happy (salsa) familia!
Each night our closing good night song keeps getting better, louder, and we truly have become a community that I’m so grateful to be working with.