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A different kind of workday

The alarm clock rings. I get up, have breakfast, get dressed and brush my teeth. I slip into my sandals and make my way to school. When I arrive there, I find the door locked. I send a message to my boss. I get an answer right away: “Today there is a teacher conference, so the school will be closed for the whole day”. So I walk the two minutes back home and remember Germany. I thought school conferences were always after school? Yeah of course, in order to not waste even one minute of class. But here in Costa Rica, time moves differently. School getting cancelled for a number of different, very interesting reasons is really not the exception here. It’s part of the Pura Vida. I have got used to it quite quickly – it wasn’t that hard. I do find it weird, though, that the children never know why they don’t have class, and not even when their holidays start.

At home, I think about how to make use of my free time. There is always work to do. Those who know me also know that I just can’t deal very well with boredom and not doing anything. Yes, I know that the calm of boredom and non-doing is important, but I’m still in the learning process. Believe me, Costa Rica is the perfect spot for learning this. Still, I’m here to work. After all, I want to make good use of my time as a volunteer. I’m happy about the unexpected free time and turn on my laptop. On the Internet I look for handicraft work and potential content for English class, as well as exercises for concentration. I want to be prepared and find thought-through exercises which the children might have fun with. Preparation is good, but sometimes, spontaneity is better. Due to the language barrier, I have to admit that at the moment, I still prefer preparation to spontaneity. Afterwards, I could work on my tasks for VISIONEERS – or rather write a blog and update my betterplace-campaign? As I said before, there’s always work to do!

After a short insight in my working life, here comes a more informative insight:

In the morning, Lina and I take turns working in the school’s kindergarten or in the Cen-Cinai. The children in the kindergarten are between 4 and 6 years old. The focus lies on preparing them for school. This means that they’re doing lots of creative handicraft work, learn the alphabet and numbers and already get taught a few English words. There is also a break in which the children can romp around. I support the teacher and help the children with their tasks. I am also allowed to prove my own initiative, for example in managing an English class or bring various ideas for handicraft work or other tasks.

The Cen-Cinai is more like a nursery school than a kindergarten. Most kids are between 2 and 4 years old. Here, they get breakfast and lunch and are supposed to learn how to properly eat with fork and knife. Even though, actually, the children only get a spoon. Not all meals are good to eat with a spoon… After the meal it is of course important to brush the teeth. Playing and having fun are the focus here. There is singing, dancing, and the children can occupy themselves with the toys. Inside, the kids have mainly toys for learning, while outside there are toy vehicles, balls, swings, a trampoline and a lot more. I am really amazed by the enormous facilities here in the Cen-Cinai.

In my opinion it’s also great how big the role of sustainability is in the Cen-Cinai. To understand this, you have to know that, apart from ecological power supply, there is basically no consciousness on sustainability in Costa Rica. Every time I go shopping I can see a sea of plastic bags, even though they are officially banned in Costa Rica. Nevertheless it happens quite often that people leave the supermarket with about 20 plastic bags. There are almost no products in glass, most things are packaged in plastic and it seems like almost all of the products in the shelves belong to Nestlé. Pretty strange for me. In the Cen-Cinai, we go to the beach every Friday together with the children and gather the trash left behind by tourists. A great activity. Also Lina and I are really industrious doing handicraft with recycled materials. Most of those are used as decorations. For example we did Christmas decorations out of toilet paper rolls and the ends of bottles. In general, we support the kindergarten teacher in looking after the children and keeping them occupied, as well as in cleaning. We also help the worker in the kitchen with distributing food and doing the dishes.

After a lunch break, the work continues. Our real project, “Uno+”, is calling. It takes place mostly on the afternoons on 3 days a week and on Wednesday morning. The other two days, we use the afternoons to get the tasks for our organisation VISIONEERS done. It is my work to compose the newsletter. With Uno+, we are working in three locations. The children come there after school or in between their breaks, to spend time together, have fun, do handicrafts and study. The aim of the project is to enable the children other occupations than drugs and criminality outside of their time at school. We also want to soften the burden on families who, because of their work or other reasons, only have very little time for their children and cannot support them very much.

Since Uno+ was brought to life with help of the church, it plays an essential role. There is common praying, and through the handicraft work the children learn about the bible and God. I am really thankful that the regular staff is responsible for these kind of tasks. I wouldn’t feel capable to teach about the bible or the church – not in Spanish, not in German. The relation between the people in Costa Rica and the church or God is very different from what I know and am used to. It’s stronger, more intense and also more dependent. I feel like in Germany, we are simply more relaxed in this area. Maybe because of the numerous possibilities and the strong western influence, and also the freer kinds of thinking we have at our disposal. We question things more and don’t believe everything printed. The traditions are fading, we are changing along with the world, which is in constant development. Here, it sometimes feels as if the world was standing still.

Nevertheless we are able to support the staff energetically. Since the difference in age is quite big (6-14 years), we can help especially the younger children; be it with the cutting out, threading or sticking things together. We can also include our own ideas, not only for handicraft, and execute them. I notice that with every bit the language barrier diminishes, I feel more comfortable perceiving and including my own ideas. From time to time, we teach English to the children. We conduct it ourselves since the staff do not know English. Handicraft is something we basically always do. Dreamcatchers, several Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas stars, the children always enjoy doing handicraft. Even though there is a lack of a lot of materials (sometimes even just simple, coloured sheets of paper), we try to get creative and implement as many ideas as possible. Active games, the so-called “dinámicas”, always make the children smile. We also go to the park with the children and play football/soccer. The people of Costa Rica are real football-fanatics! We also offer the children to bring their homework and we help them in doing it. Topics like love, friendship, family and bullying are also included in the Uno+ program. At the end, the kids usually receive a few cookies or bananas and a drink. What is also important to know is that us volunteers are here to provide support and must not replace any real jobs. Just before the start of the Christmas holidays we organised a big Christmas party for all the children from the different locations. We hope that this has brought some joy to the children.

After this rather informative overview, here comes the emotional aspect: I am feeling really comfortable with my work. I am thankful that my work includes lots of different aspects and activities due to the different locations and organisations. Of course there are boring and exciting days. It was my wish to be able to include and implement own ideas – this wish was fulfilled. How interesting and agreeable my work is, this lies in my own responsibility. The more ideas and initiative I implement, the more fun I have doing my work, while at the same time improving my Spanish. This benefits three different parties – the children, my colleagues and me.

I already had lots of positive experiences, but also a few negative ones. I will start with the bad ones and end on the good ones. Already in my first week, I had to teach an English class alone for two hours. 20 children and a still unknown person in front of them – of course they hardly showed me any respect. In addition comes the at the time still enormous language barrier. Also, it’s actually not permitted to leave the volunteers alone. A bunch of screaming kids, really annoying – but also an experience I can only learn from. A big shock for me was an experience I had in the kindergarten. On a sheet of paper, there were a girl and a boy. The girl had stereotypical long hair, high heels and was wearing a dress. The boy had, also stereotypically, short hair and was wearing a t-shirt and trousers. The teacher asks what the boy and the girl in the picture are wearing and how they look. The children answer. Than they get asked if the children are girls or boys. The children answer. One boy doesn’t have the courage to answer. In consequence, the teacher asks him if he was a girl. No answer, the kid is really intimidated. Finally the teacher asks me if I were a woman. I can just get a low “sí” out. Then the teacher turns again to the boy and asks him if he was a girl. The other kids start laughing. He then answers that he was a boy. I’m left speechless. Wow, so the teacher achieved her goal. Afterwards, the 4-6 year old kids were taught about genitals. Each boy and each girl had a certain genital, so they said.

Watching all of these was awful for me. What was even worse, that I couldn’t oppose myself to this. All I could do was sinking lower and lower into my chair. I felt so tense, frustrated. A big lump inside of me. I felt so powerless, I had to let things happen. I so badly wanted to object, tell examples of the European culture. But unfortunately I had to hold back, because I am guest in a foreign culture. In spite of how awful I felt in the situation, it was an important part of my experience of getting into a new culture in a different society. The culture in Costa Rica is based on traditional and, in my opinion, out-dated thought patterns. Hard as it may be, I have to accept this. It’s difficult to find a balance of acceptance and intervention.

In spite of some negative experiences, there were countless beautiful and positive moments. The open-minded and talkative children – it seems as if they were more interested and curious about me and my culture than every adult. The children’s energy which is transferring itself onto me – from tiredness and exhaustion to motivation and joy. Just seeing the kids’ smile when they get praise is priceless. An especially beautiful day was the excursion we did to the park. We were playing countless games, the kids laughing boisterously. They seemed happy, far away from the problems at home or at school. One girl was clinging to me almost the whole afternoon. She kept asking if I couldn’t lift her up onto my arm. Then she gave me a very strong hug and did not let me go again. It was an incredibly beautiful moment, in which I felt so much love and warmth from such a little girl. It’s also great to see when the children finally, after long explanations and some downs, understand the math exercises and improve. Not only are they proud, but I too am incredibly proud of them. This moment when you have the feeling that you can actually make a difference, is really beautiful. Somehow, in these moments I just can’t stop smiling.

This different kind of workday is now over. Exhausted by the heat, I go to get a peanut ice cream from my abuela. I get on the couch, caress our cat and read a Spanish children’s book for a bit. It’s about a dog – quite a touching story. A few moments later, Lina and I are cooking a delicious dinner for ourselves and watch an episode of “The Hundred” – in English with Spanish subtitles. After washing the dishes and, as always, a cold shower, I lay down in bed quite contently. I think about how happy I am to support the children on their ways and how excited I am for the next few months. I hold them more dearly from day to day. Only one thing keeps popping up in my hand and keeps me from sleeping: Unfortunately, Christmas time will be over soon and I’ll have to think of new ideas for handicraft work… I really hope I’ll come up with something!

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