Matt Lim - General Teaching Projects in Costa Rica
Writing about my experiences in Costa Rica is a daunting task: not because I have nothing to write about or because I spent an un-enjoyable two months there; but precisely the opposite. I have so many great memories and I can not speak highly enough of the country and its people - and the weather.
When I first arrived my host family, who greeted me like a handsome long-lost friend, seemed to be just that - a family. Never would I have expected a family, their neighbours and passers-by to accept me so readily and enthusiastically, as I struggled initially to overcome language barriers and adaptation problems. Never would a school, a newspaper company or whatever you choose to do with Projects Abroad give a teenage student with no meaningful experience a chance to gain such experiences.
I had chosen to teach English to a number of amazing and enthusiastic children, who are also some of the most adorable kids I have had the pleasure of meeting. I also taught football at the same school, which kept me constantly busy and engaged in everyday life in Costa Rica. There was also opportunity to have fun with the rest of the volunteers in the town of Liberia, as I went out with them almost every night and also went away to spots all over the country during the weekends. This amazing group of people - and they know who they are - made the trip an absolutely incredible experience and I absolutely loved meeting like-minded and fun people from all over the globe.
My gap year was intended to help me work on my language skills so that I could move smoothly into studying Spanish and German at University. However, do not worry if you cannot speak all that much Spanish - it really doesn't appear to have been a problem for some of the other volunteers and you'll be amazed how far a friendly smile and a point will get you. Of course, I've picked up so many more useful skills and qualities during my year, not least tolerance and respect and a new-found love of salsa-dancing, which has made me very popular in the clubs back in England!
The country itself is absolutely stunning and offers such a wide range of landscapes and activities, it's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry with the enviable amount of beauty and vitality that the Costa Ricans have daily access to. During weekends and holidays, you have the opportunity to travel to these places, whether it is a scorching and paradisiacal beach complete with horseback-riding into that famous pacific sunset to zip-lining over the lush canopies of the rainforests of Monteverde; from bathing in the natural hot-springs of the volcano in La Fortuna to journeying over the border to the surfing hotspots in Nicaraga, which I did twice in my short stay.
There is no better way to understand the nuances and idiosyncrasies of a country's culture, language and people than actually living there, and although I said from my very first day that two months was nowhere near long enough, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be part of that world for any amount of time.
All this, and I haven't even mentioned the people of the country, who were unbelievably open and warm all of the time and always ready to welcome you into their household with a drink or game of football. These personal touches are what creates a true experience and is what I have tried to capture here. Without the people, I may as well have stayed in the London airport, describing a postcard.
During the school holidays, I tried to give a little back to the caring Costa Rican community and I endeavoured - along with a few close friends I hade made there - to help build a bathroom for a school, where one of my other friends had worked as a teacher. The school was incredibly poor - from a distance it might be mistaken for a shed - and so remote from anywhere that it is a wonder it has any students at all. It was so poor that it couldn't afford to hire a construction team - just one man and his son - although all the materials had already been donated over the year. During the two weeks I spent, I experienced yet another of the genuinely humbling experiences that make these months worthwhile and fulfilling, in a way that lying on beaches and even visiting active volcanoes and zip-lining through rainforests never could.
I left Costa Rica extremely sad to leave but glad and so grateful to have been allowed to experience such a vibrant community and such a perfect way of life. I think I have become far more mature and well-rounded as a person. I returned to my studies by starting at Cambridge University at the start of October, knowing that the year I had spent out was as much of an education as the study of my core texts. However, the development of my skills and knowledge is of course paramount because I know now how easy it is to make a difference - a presence in a classroom; an extra pair of hands or simply using what skills you have to help - and this only adds extra incentive to do so.