I Volunteered Abroad—Here's What it's Like

Last summer, I spent one week volunteering in the rural highlands of Costa Rica. Costa Rica isn’t too far, and one week doesn’t seem like too long—but when you’re living in a new place surrounded by new people with a new culture, it's a lot to get used to in such a short period of time. It’s different than just traveling for vacation. You’re not there to relax and take a break from real life; you’re there living with locals, working with locals, eating with locals. You’re literally living the life that locals live and you get to experience what a day (or week, or month...) is like in another person’s life.

I went to Costa Rica as an eco-agricultural volunteer. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I signed up to be this particular type of volunteer because it was so different than what you typically hear about. Most people volunteer abroad teaching English or building homes or schools. Those are all amazing, but I was intrigued by this new category that I had never heard of before. The description online told me that I would be working on a coffee farm a few hours outside the capital and this coffee farm was entirely run by a local family with the help of volunteers like myself. When signing up, I was somewhat aware that August was off-season for coffee farmers, but I figured there would still be things for me to help with, and this was one of the only times during the year that I’d actually have time to volunteer abroad, so I went ahead and registered. One month later, I found myself at the airport on my way to Costa Rica, filled with anxiety over whether or not I had made the right decision to volunteer in a non-English speaking country in the rural countryside with little electricity and wifi. I speak and understand Spanish pretty well, but I still got myself worked up over the whole situation because of all the uncertainty of what my week was going to look like. Seems like a pointless thing to worry about considering I was not going to change my mind about going, but I couldn’t help it.

I remember the first night I arrived I stayed with a host family, who were an elderly Costa Rican couple who had spent the last 26 years welcoming international volunteers into their home. They had no idea who I was, they had no idea where I came from, or what type of volunteering I was there to do—the only thing they knew was my name. Despite being complete strangers to one another, they were so kind and generous, and were so happy to have me as a guest. I stayed with them for one night before heading to San Luis, a small farm town four hours by bus outside San Jose.

The journey to San Luis was just that—a journey. The bus left at 6:30 AM, and luckily, it was a pretty comfortable bus, and the volunteer organization had gotten me the best seat– at the front with the most leg room and the best window view straight out the front of the bus. All was well, we stopped for a 15 minutes lunch break, but after lunch, the roads started to become less and less paved. Once we got to the last hour and a half, the entire road was an unpaved, bumpy, dirt road. The whole time I was thinking, “how is this massive bus going to get through this?!” It looked like the type of road you’d take for off-roading purposes, that only a Jeep could handle. Most of this portion of the ride I was either laughing out of amusement or paranoid that the bus was going to get stuck and we’d all have to walk 50 miles to get help. Nevertheless, we eventually made it to San Luis all in one piece.

I soon met my second host family, who was also the family that owned the coffee farm. The host mom showed me which bed would be mine among the twenty bunk beds available. There was no insulation, patchy wifi, and little electricity, but I didn’t mind too much. We were surrounded by beautiful nature everywhere, so I couldn't complain. I spent the next week helping the farmer, my host dad, with whatever he needed. I started out the week helping him roast, measure, and package coffee. It was fun working with him and sticking his farm’s label (which had a cute family portrait on it) on each bag. One of the days, he told me I’d be cutting the weeds around the coffee plants and handed me a machete at the end of his explanation. This was definitely the hardest day physically—a lot of squatting down to the root of each plant, a lot of arm action to swing the machete, and a lot of walking from one plant to the next. Despite being tired and sore afterwards, it was actually a lot of fun and extremely rewarding to walk back through all the clean cut plants. By the end of the week, I was so happy and grateful for my entire experience in San Luis. At times, it all felt so surreal living amongst the locals in the middle of a captivating rainforest, thinking about how this was actually someone else’s regular life.

I loved my experience volunteering abroad and I am sure I will do it again sometime in a different, new country with more new people. It was amazing to be able to coexist with people who had grown up with such a different life than my own and I would recommend anyone who is considering volunteering abroad to just take the step and go for it. I promise you won’t regret it.