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The International Writers Magazine: Costa Rica

You Never Forget Your First Machete:
A Service Trip to Mastatal, Costa Rica
• Allison Cordaro
I am not exactly sure what I expected, but it definitely wasn’t this. When I signed up for a service trip to Costa Rica, I pictured forlorn, ramshackle huts which would seem to crouch behind their weathered, but stout owners. The leathery faces of these locals, who I imagined would weave colorful tales with a distinct Costa Rican charm, would immediately brighten at the comforting sight of 14 benevolent Americans who have come to ease their pain.


But after I stepped off the plane and surveyed the landscape, I wasn’t quite sure if we had left the airport in Philly. The drive from the San José airport to our destination in Mastatal was filled with vibrantly colored cars, billboards advertising everything from Taco Bell to lingerie (albeit in Spanish), and even paved roads! I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but when I signed up for a volunteering trip, I guess I was just expecting some sort of poverty-themed amusement park. My first impression was that Costa Rica seemed like anything but poverty-stricken.

However, as we delved deeper into the rainforests of Costa Rica, I realized that globalization and modernization have had little effect in the smaller villages (I say little effect – the restaurant in the middle of town boasted a small, but radiant Coca-Cola sign). The paved roads ended some 45 minutes before we reached Mastatal’s town limits, but the jerky motion of the van and the sweeping dust that filtered through the half-opened windows made me feel oddly closer to nature. During the three hour van ride from the airport to Mastatal, our group leaders made the distinction that the people of Mastatal are not poor; instead, they are living simply. La pura vida. Guiltily, I switched my iPod off and opened my window wider so I could more fully savor the flavors of the Costa Rica: cerulean butterflies as big as my hand fluttering by, mountainsides ridged by the countless cows trudging on the slopes, and flamboyantly-dyed hammocks hanging from each porch that we passed.

Spring By the time we actually made it to Mastatal, the darkness was so dense that it felt like a blindfold, but the warm, sweet musk that filled my nostrils told me that we had successfully made it to the rainforest. After a brief exchange with the owner of the ranch, we groggily stepped inside a bungalow. Someone flicked the light on, illuminating intricate hand-made bamboo beds with elaborately-stitched coverlets in saturated reds, greens the color of a snake, and blues more vivid than the sky.

Apparently, living simply does not mean that you cannot surround yourself with beauty. I immediately wanted to explore our home for the next week, but my exhaustion prevailed over my Christopher Columbus-esque thirst for exploration; I fell face first onto the nearest bed without even bothering to change into my pajamas. Through the mesh windows, a chorus of chirping cicadas with the croaking accompaniment of one, lone frog lullabied me to sleep.

The next day, I expected to plunge into whatever intensive labor we had traveled over 2,000 miles to do. Instead, our guide Marcos, who grew up in Mastatal, shepherded us through a labyrinth of trees, tangled roots, and an art gallery’s worth of spider webs on display (complete with the artists themselves who lounged in the middle of their masterpieces, to the horror of many of the girls on the trip). The Americans bumbled over every twig and desperately clung onto the mastestuoso trees, which rose regally into the air, dwarfing the much smaller mastate trees for which the town of Mastatal was named. Every once in a while, the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves was broken by a sharp swear word from someone in our group. Marcos, however, might as well have been pirouetting through the trail, he was so graceful. He slapped each tree, not for support, but like the trees were his old friends. Slathered in sweat, socks caked with mud, and skin tingly from sun exposure, we emitted an audible sigh of relief when Marcos finally held up his hand signaling that we had arrived. I squinted upwards and saw a majestic waterfall cascading down jagged rock faces and gently gathering in a small pool at our feet. Someone defiantly defied gravity and drew a heart and a peace sign with salmon-colored chalk on an impossibly high rock, but it seemed so appropriate. The peace of our small paraíso was inescapable – until our group leader screamed, “Cannonball!” and hurled his body into the pool, eliciting giddy, childlike squeals from the group. The waterfall had a magical quality that transformed us into five-year-olds again: everyone jumped in and doggy-paddled their way toward the waterfall, heads playfully bobbing above water.

Although our vacation period was fantastic, it was also brief. The next day, Marcos brought us to the local elementary school and showed us where we would begin building a greenhouse for the students. The kids will learn permaculture techniques and different methods of organic farming as part of their curriculum. We split into groups: diggers, bamboo-finders, and machete-wielders. Confined to the schoolyard, the diggers, armed with only shovels and spades, faced the gargantuan task of plowing a rectangular area which would serve as the garden.

The bamboo-finders hunted for long, somewhat straight shafts of bamboo which would line the paths inside the greenhouse to mark where the carrot patch ended and the footpath began. Marcos explained that he would also need curved bamboo to form the arched roof of the greenhouse (fortunately, that task lay in the hands of some other volunteer group scheduled to arrive within a few months). The structure would be covered with a canopy of plastic to retain heat. The machete-wielders had the daunting task of finding trunks, about a foot in diameter, to outline the base of the entire green house. The length of the logs varied, so we played Tetris with the trunks, piecing them together to form a complete a rectangle. The bamboo would be secured into these unyielding trunks, forming the arched “walls” of the greenhouse.

I was lucky enough to find myself on the machete committee – and believe me, you never forget your first machete. I am renowned in my family as the most likely victim of physically injurious, unexpected events, but the thought of grasping a machete in my hand (even if it was only for a picture) seemed like something I needed to do before I died. In my excitement, I was unprepared for the sharp ache that shot up my arm after mercilessly hacking away at a stubbornly thick trunk. Sweat snaked its way down my sore muscles, and I was forced to admit defeat. I wandered out of the forest and back into the schoolyard where I was greeted by the steady “schlick, schlick, schlick” of the shovels. But the grimly determined looks on the shovelers’ faces told me that they were struggling, too. The exhumed clods of dirt were so dense they looked like clay, a drawback of coming to Costa Rica during the dry season. After a few hours of this relentless rhythm, Marcos announced that we were done for the day. Sweet relief.

At the end of the working week, we finally had the opportunity to meet the kids at the school. We helped them with their English homework, and they embarrassed us on the soccer field, deftly weaving in and out, always keeping the ball away from us, who were about twice the size of some of them. Six-year-old Alex, a futbol-star-in-the-making, was equally as cute off the field. Before leaving, he gave us a tattoo (which vaguely resembled a yin yang) in faint blue ink on our forearms. After lunch, we supervised as the kids spread manure in the three rows delineated by bamboo. Another young student, José, whipped out his phone and began playing “Sexy and I Know It,” a somewhat racy choice for a nine-year-old, but I don’t think his mother should be concerned until his English improves. My host brother, Daniel, grabbed a shovel and held it horizontally, strumming it as if he had a guitar in his hand, moving his hands along to “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, yeah!” Midway through this Elvis-like routine, we all doubled over with laughter.
I envisioned my friends on spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida: one laying like a crumpled doll on the floor after about three shots, another twisting his shirt in the air shrieking, “Shirtless Saturdays!” while a few of them sloshed beer in an epic beer pong battle, wearing red solo cups like crowns. So college. But here I was, in Costa Rica, in a tiny town that Google Maps cannot locate. As enticing as the drunken havoc that my friends were surely wreaking all over Daytona Beach sounded, I was so glad that I chose to do a service trip instead. Still our work seemed menial – if we didn’t begin the foundation for the greenhouse, another group would have done it. The kids who attend the elementary school in Mastatal might not even remember me, much less my name, when they are older. Nothing much would change if another 20-year-old American girl slashed away at that trunk with a machete instead of me. Except I wouldn’t be different.

Although my contribution to the project was so minute it might not have been missed if I didn’t participate, my way of thinking is completely different than before I went to Costa Rica. I know that some people balk at the idea that the focus of service trips are on the volunteers – and rightly so. But there’s no escaping the life-altering consequences of participating in a trip. I don’t pretend to be some sort of savior – the people of Mastatal would have survived with or without my negligible contribution. But there is an awareness that comes with living your life differently, if only for a few days. You learn what it takes to live simply, so that others may simply live.

© Allison Cordaro November 2012

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