by Rachel Kahn
Participant, Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica 2012
Regional President, NFTY Northwest Region
NFTY Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica hadn’t really ever been on my radar; I guess you could say that it has a quiet confidence. With a capacity of 25 participants and such a remote and “un-Jewish” location, MCCR has a mysterious aura about it. Going into my senior year, having already been to Israel on NFTY-EIE Summer Semester, and itching to go on an exotic trip, NFTY MCCR was a good choice for me. So with two of my closest friends from URJ Camp Kalsman and my best friend from EIE, I embarked on a journey that was unlike any NFTY experience I’d ever had.
The first thing that hit me was the humidity. As soon as we walked outside upon our arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica, my friends and I looked at each other and said with great exasperation, “EWWW THIS CLIMATE IS SO GROSS!” Of course, most of the other participants were from the East Coast and had little sympathy for us Seattleites; people from the Pacific Northwest tend to be preoccupied with the weather.
On our first day in Costa Rica, we rose early for a breakfast of rice & beans (a Costa Rican staple), loaded our buses, and drove literally across the country, all the way to the Costa Rica-Panama border. From there, we traveled upriver in dugout canoes to the indigenous village of Yorkin, where we stayed for the next three days. We spent the mornings performing acts of tikkun olam(repairing the world) by helping the people of Yorkin build a new room for their elementary school. We got to help the locals saw and plane planks of wood, nail those planks onto the frame of the building, and schlep rocks up from the river to build a path.
After intense mornings of hard work, we spent low-key afternoons swimming in the river and learning about the culture of the Bribri people (indigenous tribe of Costa Rica). We learned how they make chocolate from scratch and use a bow & arrow, plus we learned a few words on the native Bribri language such as “welcome” and “thank you.” The people of Yorkin speak Spanish, so many of the participants on the trip could communicate with the locals. Having taken only French, I relied heavily on my friends to translate for me.
Yorkin is special in that it is totally in the middle of the rainforest. There were moments when all we wanted was to be back in the city, like when we found a three inch-long forest roach in our bathroom, or the spider that was about the size of my face, or when the howler monkeys woke us up at 5am with their screeching in the distance, but everyone on the trip left Yorkin with peace of mind, and new appreciation for the rainforest and the life that it sustains.
We returned to San Jose on Friday night, and attended Shabbat services at Congregation B’nai Israel, a progressive synagogue in the city. It was interesting to experience Shabbat in Spanish, and the rabbi was nice enough to read off the page numbers in English as well. The next day, we drove up to Poas Volcano and hiked up to the crater. We were disappointed to find that it was much too cloudy to see anything. We sat in a circle and shared our most meaningful Jewish experiences. Some participants shared deeply personal experiences, and it was at this time that I realized what a special community we had built, and it only took a week.
Our second to last day in Costa Rica was spent in La Carpio, the poor section of San Jose. The inhabitants of this area are mostly immigrants from Nicaragua. They live crowded together in makeshift homes, and it is impossible to escape the aroma of sewage. We helped these people mix and pour cement to pave a road. It was a lot of work, but we completed most of the job.
Our last day in Costa Rica was a reward for all our hard work. We drove to the coast and took a catamaran out to a private beach for the day. It was so tropical and beautiful! We went snorkeling, and swam in the ocean, and ate foods besides rice & beans and plantains. Honestly, this day made every hardship we faced earlier in the trip totally worth it. Every cold shower, every mosquito bite, and every puddle of mud we had to step in. Totally worth it.
When I returned home and wrote in my journal about all the experiences I had, I realized how much I missed the low-stress lifestyle of Yorkin. The people of Yorkin are some of the happiest people in the world; they don’t have to worry about half of the things we worry about in the US. While in Costa Rica, we discussed the differences between a “want” and a “need.” The inhabitants of Yorkin have so much less than we do, yet they are so much more satisfied. I think there is a message here.
We also discussed the idea of “sustainable service.” If something is “sustainable,” that means that it’s there for the long-run. By building a classroom and paving a road, we — the participants of NFTY Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica 2012 — made a sustainable difference in the communities of Yorkin and La Carpio. As I stated in a Facebook status upon my return home, “I hope that we will all draw things from this experience to implement in our daily lives, because we really can make a positive and sustainable difference in the world.”
Thanks, NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps, for such a positive and fulfilling experience!