Undergrad Student Spotlight: Justin Dickinson

Justin Dickinson (BA ’23)

Over spring break, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with Tanya Gonzalez and Rebecca Paz for our Latin(x) Literature course, ENGL 389. The trip was service-work oriented and was geared toward first-generation students and first-time travelers abroad. I had never left the country before the trip, but have been bitten by the travel bug and want to do a lot more international travel in the future.

If I were to describe the trip in a single word, it would be “transformative.”

I feel that every one of us who went on this trip came out of it, having grown as a person–more worldly, understanding, humbled, and enriched. I made an effort throughout the trip to step out of my comfort zone and try things I wouldn’t have the opportunity or chutzpah to do in my regular daily life.

Since our trip was service-work oriented, we worked with many organizations in a few cities around Costa Rica to help with their projects and learn about the work they are doing. One of our first groups was called Green Wolf, a nonprofit group founded in 2018. Green Wolf’s mission is to clean rivers and wildlife areas of litter, pollution, and help restore natural areas for native animals to repopulate. They have helped with well over 100 cleaning campaigns, and are largely volunteer-based. We spent the day doing a trash pickup near a river and in a field  recently scorched by a wildfire started from littered glass that overheated. The group took us down to the river and informed us of their community-improvement efforts to get lobbyists to push for bills that would prevent water-contamination from entering the river from commercial and residential neighborhoods nearby.

Another group we worked with for several days on various projects was Chepe se baña. Chepe se baña is a group that started as a single van that went around San José to areas with high populations of people experiencing homelessness to offer showers, haircuts, and other basic needs from the portable shower in the van. Since these humble beginnings, Chepe se baña has grown exponentially. Instead of a single van and a few volunteers, there are now two facilities in San José that offer housing, food, showers, haircuts, medical and dental care, and offer classes on music, art, cooking, and other trades to help people experiencing homelessness get back on their feet and live comfortably during a difficult period of their life. Chepe se baña has helped over 1,000 people get back into stable living environments and off the streets. Our involvement with them began with moving the medical equipment and supplies from one of their facilities to another to further expand their space and reach. We spent a day organizing, cleaning, moving, and talking with other volunteers–many of whom were previously or currently experiencing homelessness, and were helped by the work done by Chepe se baña.

The following evening, we spent time passing out food in different areas of the city with higher populations of homeless individuals. It was during this evening that I think all of us felt the most growth. Hearing the stories of these people, getting to interact with them and see how Chepe se baña has helped them and their family, was incredibly humbling and enriching. While I know that we did a good thing by helping these people, I would be remiss to not point out that we are not heroes because of this experience. What was a life-changing few hours for us is just another day in the life, another meal being given to people who will not remember this evening in a couple of weeks the same way we will. The experience was sobering, emotional, and humbling, and I cannot thank Chepe se baña or our guides enough for giving us this enriching experience.

Some of our other activities over the course of the trip involved taking a zip-lining tour through the canopy of forest. During our tour, I can not accurately describe the downpour of rain that started, and it is not something I will easily forget. Aside from the cold and wet nature of this outing and adventure, the sheer beauty of our surroundings during it will stick with me for a long time. The vibrant greens of the diverse trees, the smell of the rain, the sound of it hitting the leaves as we raced through the air on the zip-lines – this was one of the most magical experiences of our adventure.

We took a walking tour through Manuel Antonio National Park and spotted many animals along the way: birds, snakes, iguanas, sloths, white-faced monkeys, and so much more. The walking tour led to a beautiful beach where monkeys ran free and climbed in trees only feet away from our table.

After spending some time at the beach, we went through the final leg of the walking tour: a raised walkway that goes through about a mile of bio-diverse and natural plants and trees. Surrounding the entrance to the national park are several locally-run small businesses that sell crafts and clothing. A tourist trap, sure, but we had some of our favorite interactions and souvenirs from this area. Shout out to Leon, better known as Amanda, a local drag queen who invited me to her show that evening!

One of our most exhausting, yet rewarding, excursions on the trip involved hiking up a steep – what I would call mountain – to a lavish and beautiful family farm that produces coffee and other organic produce. This farm took us in and made us feel like family immediately. They taught us how to make corn tortillas with a molcajete and made us some of the most delectable food I have ever had in my life: braised chicken that melted right off the bone, served over rice and beans, our tortillas, and with sides of vegetables and fried plantains. The farm had chickens and dogs running around, there were hammocks and rope swings that overlooked miles of green, trees, and mountains.

The item on the itinerary that caught my attention during the application process most was a tour of an organic coffee farm, and this tour did not disappoint. We started with a sampling of different roasts of coffee they have on their farm, as well as a tea made from all the parts of the coffee plant that would not be used typically, and a marmalade made from the coffee plant itself. Each new drink we tried was more delicious than the last, and most of us left having bought at least a bag of tea or coffee, or a jar of the marmalade. I bought all three.

Our guide then took us around the trails in his fields to show what he does at the farm. We saw their roasting racks and several in-process beans roasting in the sun. He had different produce plants that he only kept around for soil concentration, as food for wildlife to leave his coffee beans alone, and native plants that are natural deterrents to some predators. We tried spearmint straight off the plant, licorice leaves, raw cacao, and cinnamon straight off the bark. As we walked through the fields, the view of the mountains before us was overcast in clouds and the temperature began to drop. This was one of the most stunning views I have had in my life, and I keep going back to the pictures I took on this tour as some of my favorites of the entire trip.

We helped a man who does sea turtle conservation work in Jaco Beach. His work, done solo, has single-handedly doubled the population of turtles who hatch on his beach and make it to adulthood. We helped him shovel purified sand from a mound that had been dumped on the beach by a truck into an even-ground area for turtles to lay their eggs in. This was a grueling task in the baking sun on the beach, but the sunburns are worth it to know that many more turtles get to mature!

One of the final big activities we did was visit a cacao farm and helped make dinner with the family that runs it. The family who runs this farm were some of the kindest and warmest people I have ever met. Teaching us how cacao is made and processed, feeding us, and sharing stories from their lives, this was a meal that could not have capped the trip experience better. The family often lets strangers stay in their attic area, simply because people do not want to leave such a beautiful and mountainous range. The temperature in this microbiome was some of the coolest we felt while in Costa Rica, and I did not want to leave.

Overall, the entire experience of going abroad was incredible. I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience another culture, as well as grow as a person with all my new-found friends. I never dreamed I could go on such an exciting adventure, and I can’t wait to go elsewhere in the world and keep broadening my view of the world. A common phrase expressed in Costa Rica has made its way into my regular vocabulary, and I would like to leave you with it. In Costa Rica, the general attitude toward life is to relax and enjoy, or, as Ticos would say, “¡Pura Vida!”

— Justin Dickinson (BA ’23)

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