Stephanie Davis, daughter of Ken and Raffaela Davis was awarded a grant from the Catenian Association Bursary Fund towards the costs of her trip to Costa Rica where she joined others in building a school for children.
Further details of the Catenian Association Bursary Fund can be found on the Catenian Association website.
Read Stephanie’s Costa Rica account
On the 12.7.2010, I trekked into the indigenous reserve of Chirripo with sixteen other volunteers. We would be living in one of the remotest areas of Costa Rica; 16,216 hectares in size and covering the foothills of the Talamanca mountain range on the Atlantic side of the country, the reserve is populated by about 4,000 Cabecar people.
Our aim was simple, to provide the community of Alto Pacuar with a new school where the young people could finish their education and receive a certificate of secondary education. With this certificate, the young people of the community would have brighter prospects in terms of jobs, higher education possibilities and financial security.
We were about to embark on the experience of a lifetime, excited at the prospect of such a rare opportunity whilst being completely unsure of what life for the next three weeks would entail! We knew very little about the community before arriving; we had heard that a very kind and generous woman would cook our meals for us (even though she would have to walk for an hour to reach us) and that we would be staying in the community centre which is also used as a classroom. We’d seen our basic tools whilst packing them at the charity’s Field Base and I wondered how we would build this school when most of us didn’t recognise some of the tools let alone know what they were supposed to be used for!
On our arrival we were warmly greeted by the locals and, hungry from the four hour trek across two massive mountains, we welcomed the sight of a large pot of gaillo pinto (rice and beans) cooking over a fire. However, this sight all too soon turned to dread a week into the project as rice and beans was our breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for the duration of the project! We were all very eager to see where we were to build the school and so after our first authentic Costa Rican meal we set off to see the site located about twenty minutes from our community centre. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps just a mud floor, and at least for it to be flat, but whatever I expected definitely did not reflect reality. In a clearing, still on the side of a mountain, was a pile of trees roughly chopped down. I thought there must have been a mistake! Sadly not and our first job would be to clear the trees starting at 7am the next day. To my surprise, it was really fun, and everyone was keen to get stuck in, especially when it came to using the machete! I was impressed that it was cleared in a day and really started to believe that my group could actually build a school in three weeks.
The next few days consisted of battling with the very rocky soil to flatten out the steep slope. Every day our group worked incredibly hard; we woke up at 6.00am to be on site and working by 7.am. We would walk back for lunch, eat and then return as soon as possible. We also carried the heavy tools to and from the site in the morning, for lunch and back in the evening. Often the torrential downpour that comes hand in hand with the rainy season in Costa Rica ended our day as it was impossible to see our hands in front of faces let alone our work! Flattening the slope was probably our biggest challenge due to all of the rocks and second to this came digging the forty nine 1 metre holes that would provide the foundation of the school. Our tools were basic and our experience limited but nevertheless we generally managed to stay on schedule.
The locals were a fantastic help, especially with carrying materials. Our wood for the school was located a thirty minute walk away, again through a dangerous jungle mountainside path littered with tree stumps, huge rocks and even poisonous ivy. This treacherous walk was made nearly impossible when carrying the wood. Often we would trudge up the mountain panting and sweating at a snails pace to be overtaken by a small boy of around 10 carrying 5 pieces! The locals’ strength whether old or young, or man, woman or child was incredible. We definitely couldn’t have done it without the locals and I wouldn’t have wanted to as their hard working ethic and excitement was infectious. Another classroom of the school was about a ten minute walk away and one day we visited some of the children who put on a traditional Cabecar show with musical instruments, singing and dancing. It was a very special afternoon where we also taught some English (through singing heads, shoulders, knees and toes) and learnt some Cabecar (the indigenous language) and some Spanish.
Our project was overseen by a local woodcutter, Don Marvin, who gave us an awful lot of entertainment. He was a hardworking man of few words who did not seem to understand why we couldn’t carry as much as the locals or why we missed nails and bent them whilst hammering. On the first day he gave us all a heart attack when he arrived without a plan and we soon learnt that he could not always be relied upon as the strong drinking culture meant that on many days he was too ill to turn up. Moreover, the absence of a tangible plan meant that we only had Don Marvin’s instructions to trust and follow.
This drama culminated at a very tense time in the project – four days before the project was due to end when we had the floor and walls built but not the roof. We all stood in disbelief as Don Marvin turned up late one morning shouting that he was leaving the project for no apparent reason. At first we didn’t know what to do, our charity wouldn’t let us work on the roof because of health and safety – it was very high and the ladders were built by spare pieces of wood and so rather unstable! Luckily, the next day another local stepped up to take charge and together with some of his friends completed the school with a zinc roof.
On day 19 of the project, our last, I am very proud to say that our group could enjoy the new school with the local people. We played games in the classrooms we had worked hard to build and enjoyed sharing each others company for the last time. It had been a fantast nineteen days. We were exhausted from the hard work and blazing heat and relieved that after many ups and downs, our goal was reached and the children could finish their education in a new school.
My personal highlight was definitely the opportunity to live in the community itself. Living on bare essentials, washing in a river and walking to work through a jungle was so exciting. I will never forget the first time I went to Sainsbury’s on my return and even now at university I compare my lecture theatre’s with their wooden classrooms. I am very grateful for the Catenians contribution to my trip and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to experience such a lifestyle.