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In a post on family travel a few months ago, I briefly introduced the other eight feet that wander the globe with me from time to time. While we’ve had many good vacation times overseas, the five of us have also spent some time volunteering abroad, a vastly different way to really learn about other lands and cultures.

We all agree that our first and longest work tour was the best – a nine-day building trip in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica. We had been to the country before and remembered technicolor sunsets over the Pacific, ziplining through the jungle canopy, and nature walks in the rainforest, but nothing prepared us for the level of poverty we would experience for a week and a half the second time. This trip was the polar opposite of our previous one and, as we soon found out, it was quite different from our life here at home, too.

We arrived in Santa Elena, deep in the Monteverde cloud forest, to heavy rains. The road into the town was unpaved, and even when wet, its firm ridges rattled our van and our brains for what seemed like an eternity. We dropped our bags in the spartan rooms we were assigned, let out tiny screams when we spied a gigantic spider in the shower and tiny sighs when we felt the thin, rock-hard beds, and then bolted out to walk into town to find food and an internet café.

Water rushed down the hill, swirling around our ankles and backing up into the kiosks set up along the well-traveled route. This was hint number one of the dirt to come. Staying positive, we loaded up on beverages and snacks and returned to our simple accommodations to start a routine that we would follow for the next nine evenings: taking turns showering off the day’s grit and then assembling for beers in a courtyard of plastic chairs.

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Each morning we would ride for over an hour on rutted dirt roads into a tiny village in the hills. Here, our overall goals were to dig a hole and two trenches for a new septic system, finish the interior of a school lunch building, dig a culvert, and paint a community center. There were no power tools to use; we mixed concrete by hand and transported it by wheelbarrow, both backbreaking jobs.

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We framed walls, tiled floors and countertops, built bookcases, cleared a landslide (and felt a powerful temblor one afternoon) and laid pipe in our new trenches. Yes, we were exhausted. And filthy.

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We worked under a volunteer philosophy called servant learning in which we were asked to follow local instructions and leadership; we were there to provide manpower and friendship, not control. Oftentimes, the work did not progress in a way we ever-so-efficient Americans were accustomed to. We moved concrete blocks into a pile to make room to dig trenches, then had to move them again to build walls. We built walls that had to be deconstructed when room measurements were inaccurate.

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We cemented a floor before someone mentioned we needed to run pipes under a counter. We had to chisel out spaces for electric sockets, hacking into 2x4s and drywall. With no levels available, we eyeballed our shelves for squareness; once propped on the uneven floors, that notion proved moot anyway.

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And we found all sorts of interesting things in our new trenches!

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Beyond the work, we forged a deep affection for the villagers. At first, they were shy, speaking in quiet voices with eyes lowered. They cooked us tiny tasty tortillas for lunch each day and worked alongside us before and after the meals. They were masters of their own domain, and even though we thought we knew better, most of the time their ways were the best ways to get things done. As the days passed and we worked together for hours on end, the formality began to crack and we laughed with our new friends, the adults sharing a smile over a wheelbarrow gone rogue and the kids rustling up impromptu soccer games when they got bored digging holes.

At the end of our work tour, the villagers arranged a dance party for our final night. With a boom box and tables laden with food, we celebrated our building accomplishments and cemented the brief but deep friendships we had formed. We wore our finest outfits; for all of us, Ticos and Americans alike, this meant a clean shirt and pair of jeans, a simple dress or skirt. Our final night together, we were partners of a different sort, dancing the night away in the simple community room that we and many former volunteers had helped build and raising our glasses together to the national slogan: Pura Vida!

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“Pure Life” is not just a saying in Costa Rica; it’s a way of life, a lifestyle quite opposite to the one many of us live at home. It is a life of simplicity – and contentedness with that simplicity. Costa Ricans don’t stress out about things, they are grateful for what they have, they don’t worry or dwell on negatives, and they have a humble and relaxed way of looking at life. Pura Vida expresses a feeling of eternal optimism and, as opposed to what we might feel in their circumstances, they would say and really mean what Pura Vida expresses: “Life is good!”

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