Costa Rica: An Eye-opening Endeavor, by Gretchen Seigworth, Agribusiness Management major, INTAG and Civic and Community Engagement minors


Posted: May 31, 2017

I saw how physically and spiritually beautiful this little village was, and it enriched me in ways I can never explain.
Nana's husband making fresh molds of sugar cane to sell in the markets.

Nana's husband making fresh molds of sugar cane to sell in the markets.

It is easy to go to another country to visit and explore as a tourist. But to travel to another country to learn, understand, and listen is not as easy as you think. Hardships and victories of local community members reveal themselves when you travel to learn, and that is a recipe for an emotional rollercoaster. During spring break of 2016, I and 5 other girls from Penn State’s CED 499B course took a trip to a small town in the mountains of Costa Rica called Pacayitas. Here, we spent a week immersed in the local culture. This immersive experience taught me more than any amount of reading or discussion in a classroom ever could. Throughout our trip, we were exposed to the activities, projects, and lifestyles of the community. I saw how physically and spiritually beautiful this little village was, and it enriched me in ways I can never explain.

We began our journey with an introduction to our tour guides, Alex and Fabian, who were the kindest gentlemen I have ever met. They greeted us like we were their family. It took a little bit of time for me to get used to the hugs and cheek kisses as regular greetings, but by the end of the trip this was second nature. Our first breakfast in Costa Rica acquainted us with the customary pan (bread), queso (cheese), fruta (fruit), jugo (juice, usually made of guava), “gallo pinto” (“painted rooster”, made of rice and beans) and café (coffee) breakfast that Costa Ricans enjoy every day. This colorful plate was so tasty, I have been craving it ever since! Shortly after, we met our host families at the local school. I have to admit, I was a little nervous to live with someone who fluently spoke a language in which I only had intermediate knowledge. This fear was short lived, as I very quickly rekindled my Spanish through conversation and multiple activities (like playing games, dancing, and watching TV) with Leena, Kendal, their mother Elisabeth (or Nana) and her husband.

Living with a local Pacayitas family opened my eyes to their everyday lives. I saw how caring Nana was for her family. She was always the first one awake, making breakfast for them, and the last one asleep ensuring they were all fed and bathed, and that the house was clean. While her husband was at work, and her kids were at school, Nana was busy washing their clothes by hand in a large basin, and preparing meals for the mechanics working on the community farms. I saw how eager to learn the children were. Leena (the youngest) was very excited to have us help her study for her English and math tests (which she aced!) and Kendal (the oldest) really enjoyed playing American games. They were sure to teach us many of their games as well! Nana’s husband was the hardest working out of all. He awoke at the crack of dawn to walk up the mountain to milk their cows. He harvested his own sugar cane (which was a feat in itself) and even helped a cow birth a calf while we were there!

During our trip, we were also exposed to the strength and social capital of the Pacayitas community. We were lucky to meet with a group of school board members, who were in charge of raising funds for activities for the kids. This group was made up of mostly mothers from the community who were
genuinely interested in the wellbeing of the schoolchildren. They had many big decisions to make, such as allocation of the small amount of federal funding for school lunches, and how to fundraise for extended computer and internet access that had become critical for the advancement of the students’ education. Another group of women were finding their voice and agency through a Co-op called “Mujeres Emprendedoras” or “The Entrepreneurial Women”. They enhance the Pacayitas community with their trades through cooking meals for families who visit the weekly clinic, selling merchandise and clothing that is only available two hours away in the nearest city, and creating value added products from materials available in the village like coffee and bamboo. With their innovative growth, these women are changing the way females are viewed in small town Central American culture. They are no longer just home-makers, they are businesswomen. They have started a movement in their village that many other women are beginning to follow. It is also worthy to note that every single community member attended the same church on Sunday mornings. Repeated exposure to one another through both the frequent events that the groups of women put together and the church help the community to strengthen their interpersonal trust. Our communities could learn a thing or two from them.

One of the more bittersweet visits we had to make was to a coffee farm in the upper portion of the village. This coffee plantation has been successful for many years, and their coffee is delicious and fresh. Unfortunately, as we were walking through the rows of coffee trees, fungal spores called “Roya” or “Rust” were infecting every other plant. Throughout the trip, we learned that this fungal plant is threatening an extinction of Arabica Coffee plants, as it infects almost every farm in Central America and some parts of northern South America without a cure, thus it is threatening the livelihoods of families that depend on the income from the crop. Luckily, there are other varieties of coffee available in the case that Arabica beans completely fall victim to the fungus. The trick will be to find one that Americans like, as they are the biggest customer base that these families grow coffee for. (This fact opened my eyes to how picky I am personally about coffee and things of that nature, helping me to realize that everything cannot and should not be a perfect picture of what American consumers want, but that is another essay entirely.)

To save this essay from becoming an unreadable length, I was unable to go into detail about all the other wonderful activities we took a part in: teaching students at the school about the importance of pollination and biodiversity in our ecosystems, visiting a beautiful production butterfly farm, making my own candy out of fresh sugarcane juice, eating wonderful meal after wonderful meal, and so many others. Never before have I been so accepted in a community. I was greeted by every local I passed, the community members were eager to speak with us and teach us new things. This visit made me aware that every culture has beautiful knowledge to offer its onlookers. Now, I am extremely sensitive to why and how different people live and go about their everyday activities.

Before I left, my host mom told me to be sure that I visit Pacayitas again, because “ahora, tienes familia aqui” or “now I have family there”. I plan to return to this little town every year as long as I have the funds. This experience has truly been a pivoting point in my academic career. I have caught the travel bug.