Name: Wesley Sluga
Hometown: Randolph, New York
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (intermediate)
University: Cornell University
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disadvantaged Youth in Cartago, Costa Rica
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: December 2018
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I was looking for a program that made me feel comfortable to travel abroad, help me get an authentic experience, AND give me the opportunity to do something useful with my time. Finding a program and a company that met all three of those criteria was more difficult than I imagined. I found plenty that catered to tourists who wanted to appease their morals by volunteering a little, but it wasn’t until I found UBELONG that I knew all three were a priority for the company and the program I was interested in. I immediately felt welcomed and supported upon reaching out for initial information from UBELONG. Diving deeper I realized that there is a true wholesome mission behind the company and that was when I decided to become a volunteer. The array of success stories and program options were simply cherries on top of an already great cake.
What were your major challenges?
This was my first experience abroad. I had never traveled to a different country before and I was nervous. I was worried about customs and my luggage especially. What if my Spanish wasn’t good enough to actually communicate on site and I couldn’t get help? I reached out to the other members of my group and they calmed me down. Customs ended up being a breeze and my Spanish was more than adequate. Then I worried about logistics of day to day life while on site. I am not familiar with extensive public transportation and I can’t stand to be late. After the first few days, I took a breath and tried to embrace the Costa Rican phrase so commonly used there, “Pura Vida.” It is used in so many different ways that I am not even sure what its supposed to mean anymore, but it helped me relax and look around. All the locals were kind and willing to help and no one was bothered if we were a little bit late because we took the wrong bus (which happened more often than not at the beginning). Looking back, my worries were my greatest challenge and I know now that I was much more capable than I thought and reaching out for help was easier than I had imagined.
What did you take from the experience?
I took away a few things from my experience. I learned a lot about kindness, patience, and opportunity while I was in Costa Rica. Kindness was taught to me by the host family I stayed with as well as the local population. Heidy and her family put up with five college seniors for two whole weeks, feeding us twice daily and answering thousands of our questions. Not once did she get frustrated with us or show us anything but generosity. She called our taxis for us when the cabby would speak too quickly for us to understand and she let us stay up awfully late playing cards at the kitchen table. Her warmth made her house feel like a home. The locals were also so kind to us. Once we got lost and took the bus in the wrong direction and had to walk all the back to the original stop. Multiple times we were asked where we were going, and did we need any help. It made me feel welcomed and less afraid of being out on the streets in a city thousands of miles from home.
Patience was taught at our project site. Working in an orphanage for disadvantaged youth sounds more solemn than it was. It was a little town filled with children of all ages who were so excited to see foreigners. Specifically, working with the youngest groups, five and under was a special treat. For me, I quickly learned that the entire female staff paired with unknown backgrounds made many children wary of a male presence. Although I wanted to play and talk from the moment I arrived, I had to change my outward appearance to be softer and less intimidating. One infant would cry every time he saw me the first few days. It took a whole week before I could be in his sight without invoking tears. It wasn’t until the last day that I was able to sit next to him and have him hold my finger in his hand. That moment taught me a lot about how valuable of a skill patience is.
Finally, I learned about opportunity. We made friends with a certain taxi driver who was very friendly and drove us to many of our excursions on the weekends. He told us how he was driving to make money so that he could take English lessons at night. He wanted to open a business, so he could take better care of his daughter. He didn’t appear to be any older than I am, and it made me think. This man works two jobs so that he can learn a second language in the hopes of opening a business to take care of his child. I know so many who loathe the idea of learning another language or the idea of working two jobs that pay next to nothing in the US. Yet, he was happy, engaging, and oh so optimistic. I marveled at this and we gave him double his fare on our last trip with him and wished him luck. The gratitude in his eyes made it worth it.
I hope that in my future I can try and incorporate some of these lessons into my everyday life. I want to be more kind, more patient, and humble with the knowledge of the opportunity I have been blessed with. I thank Costa Rica and this experience with opening my eyes a little wider.
In a sentence or less, best packing advice?
Bring some warm clothes, tropical destination sounds like it is warm all the time, but Mom was right as always, “You’ll be cold so bring an extra jacket!”.
Get to know Cartago, Costa Rica!