Last blogs from Costa Rica & the 2014 Elon Gap Semester

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Costa Rica is a true testament to the saying “time flies when you’re having fun”. As each day goes by I realize that I need to be appreciating the little things more so than I have been. For example, I have really enjoyed eating dinner with my host family, but these past few days I’ve made it a priority to have dinner with them. If some people from the group offer an invitation to me to go out I say no because I want to spend as much time with my host family as possible. Along with this, around 6 o’clock every night my host mom asks if I want to eat now or later with Marypaz (my host sister). I think for two seconds and always answer with “yo puedo esperar hasta que llegue Marypaz en casa” which means “I can wait until Marypaz comes home.” Whether it’s in the United States or in Costa Rica, I’ve always enjoyed company while eating, and I especially enjoy the company of my host family. I find that we have great conversations every night and we always end up laughing. Even if we sit at the dinner table in silence, which rarely happens, I know that they appreciate me just being with them. In these next few days instead of thinking about leaving, I am going to cherish the last few dinners I have with them.

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Costa Rican fun!

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Just when you think you have done the best thing yet on the Gap Semester, another amazing opportunity presents itself—and our past weekend in Cahuita is great testament to this. What I found to be most interesting was how Cahuita, which is located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, compared to where we live in the Central Valley and how each place identifies itself. One thing that I picked up on was the difference in cooking styles. Since my arrival in Costa Rica, I have adapted to the daily consumption of “gallo pinto” which is a simple rice and beans dish with spices such as coriander, garlic, cumin, salt, onions, and a sauce called Salsa Lizano. When in Cahuita, the meal options did not appear to be much different, however when I ordered a typical lunch option at a restaurant of rice and beans con pollo (chicken), not only was I surprised by the name of the plate in English (and it is referred to that way) I was also surprised by the taste! Unlike where I live in San Jose, Cahuita creates a similar rice and beans mixture however uses coconut milk, cinnamon and allspice. Like both places, the rice and beans from the Central Valley and Cahuita were both rich in flavor and had their own twist. Experiencing traditional Caribbean food helped me to realize the different identities and cultures that exist in Costa Rica. After spending several weeks in the Central Valley, it is easy to think that in general, Costa Rica can appear to be a fairly homogenous place due to the food options, the people and the places; yet thanks to our weekend excursions, we are able to have a clearer understanding of how colorful and diverse Costa Rica truly is.

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Blogs from week 2 in Costa Rica

IMG_3323Our hotel in Monteverde gave us our best view of Costa Rica’s diverse natural beauty so far. The mountain’s slope dropped rapidly beneath the last building allowing us to look down the entirety of the valley. The first time I looked out on this view I was amazed by the blue color of the clouds hovering amongst the lower peaks. I thought it was interesting how the last light was rolling across the clouds much like it dances on water. At this point I realized that what I was staring at were not clouds but Puntarenas, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The following day as we hiked through Monteverde’s cloud forest reserve and zip lined through the jungle I could not help but to be amazed by the diversity of the area. Being surrounded by jungle yet still able to see the ocean was something that I had never had the chance to experience before. The beauty surrounding us in every direction was breathtaking and unlike any other place. Yet, the diversity of Monteverde is similar to the diversity of Costa Rica as whole. No matter where I have found myself in this country, I have been blown away by the range of difference that I have seen. This has been true in not just the nation’s natural beauty. In San Jose, for example, life follows its own rules. A quality sushi bar can be found right next to a Soda, a restaurant serving traditional dishes. Clothing style ranges from business to beach wear, even in the concrete jungle. Having been surrounded by this physical and social diversity for the past two weeks I can confidently say that Costa Rica’s diversity is what makes it unique and beautiful. We, the Gap Pack, often talk amongst ourselves about how quickly our time here is disappearing. I know that I will spend every minute of our next three and a half weeks taking in this culture that I know I will never find in another place.

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Blogs from Costa Rica

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Costa Rica has served to be a new gateway for our group to expand our horizons linguistically and culturally. It has been one week since our arrival and I can honestly say my Spanish communication skills have increased and my understanding of the accepted culture within the household is now almost perfect. My time with my host father this past Sunday has been one of the better days of my life. My host father took me to a farmers market with what had to be over 300 vendors selling fruits and vegetables that looked almost surreal. I spent two hours with my host father going from stand to stand trying an assortment of exotic tropical fruit. I never had an interest in fruit and vegetables, but this farmers market opened my eyes to a whole new world of food. I now have a taste for guyaba and mamay which are two local fruit that are not sold in the USA, to my knowledge. Overall I am excited to see what other surprises and adventures are in store for me here in beautiful Costa Rica.

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Blogs from Washington DC

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What is it that you avoid noticing in your everyday life? For me, it was homeless people. Throughout my life, whether it was from media or what I was told, I believed that every homeless person was dangerous and used the money they received from donations on the street for drugs and alcohol. Due to this, whenever I went to the city I tended to walk quickly and anxiously by any homeless person and ignore their requests for help. After my week in D.C., I reflect on this mentally and am overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment in myself. Had I took the time to actually interact with a homeless person, my views and perceptions would have been much different. For this, I feel truly fortunate that our last week of service was spent at our nation’s capital doing just that. Through a variety of organizations, I had the opportunity to break rid of assumptions and help homeless people in many ways. My most memorable moment was working for Bread for the Journey; where we prepared lunch for ourselves and a homeless person and then ate with them. I spent about an hour and a half with a man who migrated to America from western Africa in the 80’s. As time flew by I felt all of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions about homeless people drift away and the only thing I was thinking about was how I was sitting on a bench in the park having an ordinary conversation about the weather, driving techniques and college majors with a middle-aged man. In that moment I also observed the amount of people either walk by without noticing or people give me a strange look as to why I was sitting there with a homeless man. As I was leaving, I found my eyes welling up with tears. Why is it that I was born into privilege and at a lesser risk of becoming homeless than this man and thousands of others in D.C. alone? I have been blessed my whole life with opportunity and this man seemed happier than I was with what he had and the hand he was drawn in life. Taking the time to become more connected with the things that I take for granted and tend to avoid has been an eye opening experience for me and I challenge you, the reader to recognize the things that you avoid noticing in your daily life and question why you do, because chances are, you’re avoiding it for a reason that will seem silly once you examine it further. Continue reading

Harlan Blogs

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The walking tour through the Wind Caves in South Dakota was awesome, but our exploration adventure of the Marengo Caves in Indiana took caving to the next level. We were told to wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and shoes that we didn’t mind getting dirty. On the picnic tables where we met our guide rested helmets, head lamps, and emergency packs. Our guide informed us that the average temperature would be 50 degrees, and we would be walking in up to two feet of water at some points. As we walked to the entrance of the cave, I had no idea what to expect. The entry zone was about 4 feet tall, so we hunched over and walked about 50 feet through a gate into the “twilight zone”, the last point in the cave that you can see sunlight. Now things were getting serious as we walked through a small stream into the dark zone. All we could see was what our headlamps would light up, I felt like a true cave explorer. We came to a stop and our guide challenged us on who could get the muddiest. At first I was hesitant until a fellow student smeared a handful of dirt on my face. After that I was determined to win, so I rolled around in the mud like a little kid. I was caked in mud from head to toe. Little did I know that the fun had just begun. We had to army crawl 200 feet through a crevice that was only two feet tall. This made me feel like an explorer who had just discovered the cave. I forgot about the outside world and my imagination went to work. Pretending that we were all explorers in the 1800’s I proceeded on. I convinced myself that every new cave room we entered was a new discovery. At the end of the exploration we emerged back into the sunlight muddy, wet, cold, and tired. But I would do it all over again to get that feeling of adventure back. Continue reading

Blogs from St. Louis

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The energy in the van was high as we pulled up beside the City Seeds. We turned off the radio and headed into the farm surrounded by the bustling city. We started to work, harvesting chard in the cool morning air. The sun got hotter and hotter as we were given more and more jobs to complete. I watered, dead headed, and sprayed a natural insecticide on rows and rows of vegetables and flowers. I looked up from watering azaleas to the St. Louis Arch standing in the distance. Here I was, in the middle of a large city, working on a farm. Somehow, through all the work, I was able to distance myself from the large looming buildings, sirens, and cars whizzing by. I was in a different world; a world of dirt, the occasional bounding rabbit, and small radishes peeping through the earth. I smiled and looked around; everyone was working hard in the midday sun. My peers, the clients, other volunteers, and employees, a group of people so drastically varied and working so well together, one couldn’t help but admire it. Continue reading

Blogs from Pine Ridge

IMG_2566I gained a wide-range of knowledge while staying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a week but what stood out the most to me was the Native Americans sense of generosity. The condition on the reservation is far from perfect. The people living there have very little by our standards; some have no beds, little money, few jobs, and fewer opportunities to better themselves. Through all of the despair they remain to be hopeful and give all that they can to their neighbors. As we worked on houses and delivered bunk beds, the people were always appreciative of our work. Many children on the reservation are not well taken care of due to the high rate of alcoholism, yet many of these children are taken in by grandmothers or neighbors so that they can have a better life. These grandmothers or neighbors who are taking in these children barely have the resources to live on their own but they still take in extra people out of kindness in their hearts. The Native Americans have a true sense of being a community and being a family together which I have rarely ever experienced anywhere else in my life. How often are we, as Americans, willing to take in our neighbor’s child or give something that we have to someone else in need? The Natives sense of giving and being generous in all that they do was truly outstanding. Continue reading

Blogs on the road…

100_1429 Only an hour after entering Yellowstone National Park, our van got caught in traffic. Driving down the road, we had seen ducks, otters, part of a moose, deer, and a bunch of antelope. Curious as to what the big deal was, I jumped out of our group’s van to walk up ahead and check it out. Armed with only a camera and my curiosity, I made my way up the car line searching for what the holdup was. When I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks. An enormous bison had emerged from in between the cars and was heading right towards me. I saw people closer to it begin running and putting distance between themselves and the bison with their cars. In a state of shock and excitement, I began to slowly back away while observing the strange beast. With sunken eyes, half of its body under a thick layer of fur, and a strange head bob with every step, I felt as if though I were in a sci-fi film. Taking pictures from every angle as I finally arrived to the safety of the van, the bison seemed uninterested in the surrounding commotion and seemed to be only focused on its future destination. I managed to hop into the van less than 20 seconds before it passed by us and then got a closer look at the sacred animal. Without it, an entire population of people, millions of people, in the central United States of America would have ceased to exist. Everything they needed was in this one, big animal and I couldn’t help but appreciate it in that moment. It was an unbelievable situation to meet one in person and one I could not be happier about.

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Blogs from the end of the expedition

IMG_2434Most days, what we do in 24 hours is about a week’s worth of effort for a student transitioning into college. Wake up, cook breakfast, pack all of your belongings into a 100 liter container, hike to your next home, unpack, build your house, have class, cook dinner, meet for more class, do awesome things, write, sleep. Everything we do is hard, but awesome. Yet the part of the day that stands out the most is right before writing and sleep. After our evening meeting which is full of classes, concerns, information, and appreciations, we sing. Regardless of how long the day was, everyone contributes that voice to at least one song. For the few minutes that we sing, all of the stresses of the day are gone and every member of our group is 100% present. Continue reading

Blogs from the trail: NOLS 2014

TentviewLast night, I slept out under the stars with five other people. It was so fun to lay out there and just stare at them because the stars were so utterly amazing and bright. We were looking for shooting stars, and it felt like we were seeing some every couple of minutes. I saw the longest and brightest shooting star I’ve ever seen. Of course, when we all saw one, we would all freak out and make sure everyone else saw it too. It was so much fun just lying and talking out under the stars and a great way to get to know each other while taking in all of  nature. Continue reading