By Kiki Chanders
I would not have guessed that the best part of our kids’ summer in Costa Rica would be getting up at 5:15 a.m. in a dark mountain village to milk goats with Eduardo, a nearly blind older man who didn’t speak English. It makes me wonder if we should be raising our daughters on a farm instead of in a co-housing neighborhood in the Denver Metro Area.
When we set into motion the long-term dream of taking our kids (ages 11 and 13) traveling for two months, we set some guidelines:
- Our destination country would feel safe.
- Everyone would be limited to a smallish backpack of belongings.
- We would enjoy some touristy things, but we would also volunteer with animals.
- We would use only public transportation.
- We would work on improving our Spanish.
Costa Rica filled the bill for being safe and Spanish speaking, but we also learned to appreciate it for its anti-war stance (having abolished its military in 1948), for its abundance of vegetarian food (rice and beans are always available), its friendly and peaceful people (we never heard raised voices or any anger expressed), its ease and nonchalance with money (US dollars are accepted in many places and are an option on the ATMs, we were never scammed) and, of course, for its incredible variety of flora and fauna.
Our goals for finding the right living and traveling balance:
- Not spending too much money yet enjoying some of the amazing tourist opportunities such as zip lines, guided nature walks, boogie boarding, renting a beautiful mountain cabin and a few guided tours.
- Volunteering with animals yet not making the experience too uncomfortable or too much work for the kids (okay, and for us too).
- Connecting with locals and learning about their lives without overwhelming our introverted selves.
We decided to spend about a week being tourists relaxing in a comfortable small apartment and cooking in our own kitchen. This would be followed by a week of volunteering and helping scientists or farmers with animals while being housed and fed by an organization. The volunteer time became the most memorable part for all of us, but I don’t think we could have maintained a happy balance without the downtime we had of quietly hanging out just the four of us – cooking our own food, reading, painting, crafting, playing in the ocean, and going for explorative walks.
Our volunteer highlights included getting to work with young scientists monitoring birds, caimans and leatherback sea turtles. The kids bonded with other volunteers and there were tears more than once at leaving time. But who knew our kids would happily get up in the middle of the night to walk the beach in the dark searching for turtles in a soaking wet thunderstorm? And who knew they would eat rice and beans with strange vegetables over and over without complaining? Who knew they wouldn’t flinch at going to bed with termites crawling beneath their thin dirty mattress? Who knew they would come running to tell us about the cool scorpion in the bathroom?
We were worried about pushing our kids too hard, but they turned out to be tougher than we were.
Meanwhile, back to the goats. We spent ten days volunteering in a small mountain eco-community called Durika that is striving to be a model of sustainability and to also be protectors of the forest. They have their own hydro-electricity and solar power, grow much of their own food (including milk from the goats) and have a community agreement to be vegetarians for environmental and sustainability reasons.
The members rotate through their many community jobs, buy up available land to reforest and earn money (which is all communal) by hosting groups and tourists who come to rejuvenate, be inspired or learn at their peaceful, remote location. This beautiful place reminded us of our co-housing community, but without the cars, pollution and distractions that come with modern civilization.
Our kids even asked to remain longer in this remote mountain village with its strange food, really cold showers, hard gardening work and early waking hours. They happily put up with all of it to be able to keep milking the goats with Eduardo. I’m not sure how, with his limited vision, but he emails me asking how the girls are doing. When I read his letters aloud, I see my older daughter tear up and her lips tremble. I’m amazed at the depth of bonding we reached in ten short days with him. Some days I wonder if we might all decide to go back to help him with the goats.
Kiki is a homeschool mom who cooks yummy vegetarian food, works on an organic farm, tutors dyslexic kids, dabbles in arts and crafts, and plays in the spectacular Colorado mountains with her husband and two adventurous daughters. She prefers to maintain her farm girl persona rather than join any social media.