Eunice Tang: My Expedition as a Project Manager / Spanish Translator in Costa Rica – Summer 2019
By Eunice Tang (Expedition Officer Term 20/21)
I had always wanted the experience of volunteering abroad, as the sense of empowerment is more significant to a young person… I wanted to challenge myself to lead a group of international people with language barriers to see how far my leadership abilities could go. Curious about the non-profit sector, I also wanted to learn how NGOs operate in the first world where it is run professionally, with funding flowing in consistently. Prior to the expedition, I had also studied Spanish for 6 months in a few countries in Central and South America. When the time came for me to go on the expedition, I was stationed as a translator to interpret between the British and Latin Americans.
The process of selection to be a Project Manager for Raleigh International was grueling – we had to attend a 2-day-1 night camp held in the English countryside, where we were tested on our teamwork and survival skills through various activities – including coming together with people we had only just met to set up tippy taps, solving puzzles and problems as a team, pushing us to our limits by physically making us think on our feet in time-pressuring situations, pressing us on how we would react in dealing with situations where volunteers would go rogue or if they put themselves in danger, and an emergency evacuation (CASEVAC) stimulation… while being constantly monitored and assessed by 3 examiners. It was non-stop activity from 9am in the morning lasting until 1am into the night, and a morning brief the next day at 6am. We were told whether we passed and could go on to lead expeditions in the different countries that we chose – I had teammates who went to Tanzania and Nepal, and one of them came to Costa Rica with me.
Costa Rica – La Pura Vida (‘The Pure Life’)
Costa Rica, like Malaysia, is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Nature is an embalm for the people, who are so very passionate for their natural wonders. They live life by this saying: Pura Vida. It is a greeting that you impart someone with when you leave – wishing them a ‘pure life’, brushing off any negativity and wishing one good luck, and a good life. Their national dish is called the gallo pinto – a hearty dish made up of an assembly of rice mixed with beans, white cheese and plantains. It is a breakfast you would have paired with signature Costa Rican black coffee.
I spent 13 weeks in the country – the first 2 weeks were spent on field training, health and safety protocols as well as to plan out the entire project, making sure all was well and ready before the Venturers were to arrive from the UK. The other 10 weeks were spent on the project site, where I had spent 2 phases in a community project, building a classroom for the indigenous Cabecar community and doing some social research to see how Raleigh could help improve the livelihoods of these people. I had spent the 3rd phase in an environmental project in one of the most beautiful natural surroundings I had ever experienced: a mystical place in La Marta Wildlife Refuge where the Director believes that a hundred-year-old ceiba tree holds the spiritual peace. It is also a historical site once used by British-American industrialists for coffee, sugarcane processing until it was mysteriously abandoned in 1930.
Empañadas - staple snack in Central America
New Teams, New Bonds
After 2 weeks spent with a small group of 12-14 other PM’s for our vigorous induction training, the nervousness crept in before the Venturers arrived. Could I actually lead a team? Would they actually listen to me? What would happen to our project that we’d planned for, would it be a success? How would we survive for 3 months in the depths of the jungle sleeping on the ground, living on bare essentials and no running water? Could I actually manage the translations from Spanish-English and vice versa?
The 10-15 Venturers who were in the groups in Phases 1-3 were mostly from the UK and Europe, a handful of them were local from Costa Rica and neighbouring Nicaragua, and there were 1-2 other Asians from China and Hong Kong. I had to manage the different cultures not only between myself and the British, Latin Americans but also the cultural differences between the indigenous communities we were working with.
Phases 1 & 2: Community – Constructing a Primary School for the indigenous Cabecar people in their community called Ñari Ñak
The challenges of working in these remote communities are diverse. Coming from cities, we expect that things run on time and supplies ferried in as scheduled… but in the conditions of the remote village, torrential rain is common and infrastructure is lacking; there are not enough bridges linking the banks across the large rivers and the mud roads are poor; people do not have the same concept of time as they would in the city. Most things not only run on mañana time (a saying in Latin America for their lax respect for time), but ‘jungle time’ – where timings are inconsistent, and people (or things) sometimes do not turn up.
Raleigh International was assisting the community of Ñari Ñak to build a new school because the old premises were destroyed by a mudslide, and the children did not have anywhere to play and go to classes. In the mountainous terrain where the indigenous Cabecar people live, huts are located far from each other and paths are carved treacherously into hillsides where children and adults alike would commute with their bare feet, or with broken crocs they’d source from the closest town four hours away.
Moving materials for construction with fellow project managers
As Project Managers, we had planned for the entire 3 phases of the project, determining the timeline of the project, who we would be liaising with, where we would sleep, our source of water, and most importantly, the health and safety of our volunteers, as well as emergency evacuation measures. The closest town was 6 hours away, and we could not afford any accidents.
I had overseen the construction of phases 1 and 2 of the primary school. In each phase, the Venturers would assist to construct and paint the classrooms. Every day, the routine would be to make sure that the Venturers are happily contributing to the work, either in construction or in the other activities that we did, which was to teach English in an interactive manner to the schoolchildren, or hold Action Days to bond with the local community. We would liaise with the construction foreman, the principal of the school and the community leaders every day. Language barriers were a problem, not only between ourselves and the community but between Project Managers as well, for Alex came from London and Michael came from Managua, and neither could speak each other’s language well. I acted as the de facto translator on all these occasions. In the evenings, we would finish work at 5pm, head to the river for a relaxing bath after a long hot day of manual work under the sun. In the evenings after dinner after the debrief, we would have bonfires in the quiet under moonlight and the stars.
Building the first classroom
Lots of days it was also the little things – mitigating conflicts that came our way, motivating Venturers to actually do work and not oversleep, comforting the homesick, overcoming those with frustration and culture shock… Some big problems we had to overcome included losing our water purification tablets and some theft issues from the local community. Those were stories for another day.
On the field in a Raleigh Expedition, most people come alone, and you spend time with people you never knew you would meet. You live in the present, and you share stories and inspire each other. The energy of the youth is contagious. We desire to create a world where there is justice and fairness. One of the best quotes from the expedition was: “We plan lessons like the teachers we wished we had. Be the teacher you always wanted growing up.” It fills me with hope on how much our generation can do to change this world for the better.
English presentation with the school students
Phase 3: Environment – Conserving La Marta Wildlife Refuge, a forgotten natural wonder
I wake up to the scent of the wood in the morning… like smoked apple ham in the summer. The fragrance of the vivid forests of La Marta Wildlife Refuge… Vines hanging down from the sky and the moss shimmer under the sunlight. The green is so lush, the brightest and purest of green. The rivers we bathe in, they gush into fountains of blue into the piling rocks. The earth clings onto the wood, the sunshine poking through the canopies. So beautiful, so fresh, so pure.
Raleigh International has been stationing their volunteers to La Marta for close to a year, with hopes in raising awareness to the local community for environmental conservation, and providing extra hands to the park rangers for the maintenance of the many acres of the national park. The closest town to the national park was Pejibaye – a little town of a few thousand inhabitants. Strangely, the townsfolk rarely visit the refuge. For an Action Day, our group of volunteers invited some students from a nearby secondary school, and prepared a day of activities, showcasing some wild animals within the park – such as snakes, frogs, crickets and the like, sharing with the local students the wonders of nature in their backyard.
Highlights of our time in La Marta included assisting the rangers in park maintenance, to dig up trenches and build bridges using freshly cut wood, and a night trek to watch the exotic animals and plants only found in Costa Rica, including the iconic Red-Eyed Tree Frog. On weekends, we would hike across the hills within La Marta and soak ourselves in the many waterfalls.
The history of La Marta is a fascinating but tragic one. The 1500-hectare site was once an important industrial era set up somewhere between 1870-1890, owned and run by British-American industrialists. They chose to set up base in the area because there was coal, and workers were brought to the plantations to work. These workers were mostly indigenous people of Costa Rica, the negros and some local Latinos. Living and working conditions were dismal, it was almost slavery. Diseases and misery amassed in town.
The farm and industry ran until 1930. Legend has it that there was a sudden rock avalanche, crashing into the river. The water from the river rose dramatically and flooded all 400 houses in the region. Everything was destroyed… except an earthen oven. A huge rock crashed amongst the upheaval and laid itself in the centre of town. A large Ceiba tree has since emerged and grown from it.
The Mesoamerican people worship the Ceiba tree, known in the Mayan culture as the ‘World Tree’, and only one such tree exists in La Marta. It is believed that this tree symbolizes the communication between three layers of the world – its roots were said to reach down into the underworld, the trunk represented the middle world where humans live, and the canopy of branches reaching to the sky symbolizes heaven. The area where the Ceiba tree grows in La Marta is not open to the public, due to its spirituality and sacredness. Our group was lucky enough to have seen it on a special night trek organised by the Director of the Refuge to recognize our efforts.
The site is now protected, not because it is such a historically, but it is also one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Sadly, it is not so recognized as such even within the local community. But Raleigh’s presence hopes to change that.
After the expedition, I felt like I had overcome my fears and the setbacks for myself including the lack of confidence in my leadership abilities. I felt at peace with myself, proud of myself for having overcome the adversities and conflicts on the field.
Both the projects I was involved with were highly successful – the local communities in both the indigenous territory and the Pejibaye district even commended Raleigh’s presence and wished for them to work with them again.
Now, to honour this adventure, I have penned a poem. It describes the days of living in the lush greenery of a tropical jungle so far away from home, in a culture so completely different from my own, but yet so immensely beautiful, vibrant and comforting that I felt so at home:
Coffee in the mornings
Chatters in Spanish
Cheerful laughs to gallo pinto
Raggae beats on the radio
In the rainforest, sunlight streams pure
Leaves shiver from the cool breeze
Orange butterflies dance and birds they sing
Greetings from our animal friends
Lush is the jungle that we find ourselves
Waking up to the feeling of soil in our bare feet
Washing ourselves in the currents of the river
Refreshing showers from rainwater
I take a moment of quietness
A breather from the crew
Awaiting us now is a long day’s work
Heavy under the sun, our creations begin
In this earthly paradise I breathe and feel
Timeless and eternal
And when time stops and the busyness ceases,
I stand and wonder...
You — mi guapo, mi hermoso
You who feels the enchantment of nature
You who strums to the rhythm of the breeze
What melodies are felt by thee?