Humane: Do Some Good
A House for Marcela
Two old friends convene in Costa Rica to work with Global Village, Habitat for Humanity's volunteer program
by Christine Brigham and Suzanne Reed
Suzanne and I have been friends since our high school days in a small Ohio town. We had lots of adventures together back then, and now, some years later, we set out on a new one just last month as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica.
Upon our arrival, we noticed a common expression among the people, “Pura Vida” which means: “this is the life” or “everything is good”. As we embarked on our one week assignment, Pura Vida took on a deeper meaning.
During our welcome dinner we received an overview of the program and information regarding our specific project for the week. We were placed on a team with ten others, and prophetically named ourselves, “The Dirty Dozen”.
Team leaders provided us with goggles, safety vests, Habitat t-shirts and work gloves - size extra-large! Our “Welcome to Costa Rica” packet included some Spanish language tips with helpful words and phrases to memorize like concrete, welding and joints - not your usual conversational Spanish.
Our task was to build a prefabricated house which used pre-made cement wall panels that were reinforced with rebar. We arrived during phase three of the project, so the foundation concrete block and rebar were in place. We helped dig the septic tank and drainage system (Suzanne’s specialty), added mortar walls (my forte) and helped lay cement floors. There was a local on-site foreman along with our two local leaders and our US leader guiding and encouraging us each step of the way. A Habitat group had been at our site during the previous week so much of the basic structure was in place.
Our typical workday:
6:00 a.m. Breakfast
7:30 a.m. Van for worksite
8:30 a.m. Settle in, stretch, receive instructions
10:00 a.m. Snack time!
Noon - Hot lunch
3:00 p.m. Clean up and depart
4:30 - 5:30 p.m. Rest, Refresh
5:30 p.m. Happy Hour and reflect on the day
6:00 p.m. Dinner
Early to sleep!
The new homeowner, Marcela, is a single mother with a thirteen year-old son. We learned that although primary and secondary education are compulsory and free in Costa Rica, students are responsible for their own uniforms, books, and supplies. Marcela’s son aspires to be a famous “futbol” player (soccer), so the cost of that equipment was another economic burden for her. Marcela picks coffee beans on a nearby plantation traveling on her road bike up and down the mountainside each day - rain (often) or shine (hardly ever). Each morning, she came to the worksite to say hello and stopped by at the end of her work day, always giving us hugs, smiles and occasionally grateful tears.
In addition to home building, Habitat puts a high value on the volunteers getting to know the community and the community getting to know the volunteers. We met Marcela’s parents, brother, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and neighbors. In the afternoons, we all got together at Marcela’s parents’ home to make empanadas (turnovers with beans, cheese and/or meat) and have coffee afterward. During this home visit we learned more about the application process which identified Marcela as a suitable participant in the Habitat program. Later in the week, Habitat threw a fiesta for the family and neighbors including a piñata for the children, a cake, and soft drinks. Knowing some Spanish came in handy. I led a rousing song of “head, shoulders, knees and toes” to help teach English to the children and followed that up with the Hokey Pokey. We even had a water balloon throwing contest. Hilarious, except for the forty-five minute van ride back to the hotel while we were soaking wet!
Besides the actual build, our team leaders provided many opportunities for local experiences: a tour of San Jose on the first day, the Cartago local market, the Basilica in Cartago, a trip to the beach, and the unforgettable and rewarding experiences with Marcela’s family and neighbors.
Our lodging was about 45-60 minutes away depending on traffic going and coming through Cartago each morning and evening. We stayed at “Grandpa’s Hotel” run by the adult grandson and three other men. There wasn’t a woman around. All the cleaning, cooking, laundry and service was provided by the four guys and always with warm hospitality! The hotel is located high on the mountain surrounded by farmlands, early crowing roosters, and occasional horses ambling past our cabin windows. It was chilly at night and usually raining. The beautiful view the first day was never seen again since we were encased in fog for the remainder of our stay. No matter about that, though, because we enjoyed the company of the guests around the dinner table each night. The interesting conversations kept us entertained.
The typical food in Costa Rica is beans and rice, known as gallo pinto, which means “spotted rooster” in Spanish because of the colorful array of beans with the rice. Gallo pinto finds it way into most every meal - with eggs and pancakes for breakfast, and with salad and meat or fish for lunch or dinner. Plantains or arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) add variety to the menu. Dessert was usually a sweet creamy flan. For our mid-morning snack, we were treated to fresh fruits like mango, papaya, and pineapple on skewers. Delicious! Coffee, great strong coffee, was served at most meals. Cafe con leche was a favorite in our group.
At week’s end our adventure drew to a close as our work neared completion and Marcela’s home took shape. Our team leaders took us to the beach in Jaco for a well-deserved bit of R&R. The tropical sunshine sparked shocking feelings of intense heat, which relaxed our tired bodies and nourished our spirits. The beaches are as beautiful as any postcard could make, and are, of course, touristy, renown for the great surf. We stayed in a lovely resort for the final day and night and then sadly headed back to San Jose to say our goodbyes at the farewell dinner on Saturday.
Broken fingernails, bug bites galore, calluses, sore muscles, farmer tans, dirty clothes and dozens of photos are what we walked away with in the end. Marcela and her son are no doubt in their new home by now. We have returned to ours with stories and memories to savor and share. Looking back, Suzanne and I aren’t sure who was luckier from this journey - Marcela and her son or Habitat’s Dirty Dozen.
Truly it was PURA VIDA!
Here’s a little information on Habitat’s volunteer program called, Global Village, in case you might be inspired to sign up!
The benefits of volunteering on a Global Village trip
• You will have an opportunity to contribute to Habitat’s work and create positive change in the world.
• You will learn about poverty housing, development challenges and Habitat’s mission to eradicate them.
• You will experience the community’s culture, language and social practices while working alongside homeowners and volunteers of all backgrounds, races and religions.
• You will take part in a transformative, lifelong journey that may ignite your passion for making this world a better place.
While every Global Village trip is different, you can expect to gain once-in-a-lifetime experiences and memories. Itineraries are balanced with plenty of work, rest and free time. During your trip, you will do more than help build houses―you will become part of the local community and participate in cultural activities.
Here is a link to the list of projects from around the world that Global Village has planned for this year. Choose your own adventure!