(This post was inspired by the WordPress weekly photo challenge: Doors.)
Last spring I accompanied my daughter and a group of suburban middle school students on a trip to Costa Rica. The trip was arranged by EF, or Education First, an organization that organizes student trips all over the world. They provided us an unforgettable itinerary, a kind and competent bus driver who was able to maneuver a giant bus on one-lane dirt roads, and a friendly and caring local tour guide named Wendy who went out of her way to make sure we were not only learning, but having a good time doing it.
As part of our trip, EF arranged a visit to a local school in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. We delivered backpacks full of school supplies, soccer balls, and spent an afternoon helping to clean up the school. I think the hands-on work we did was a special request from my daughter’s teacher.
Her middle school has a tradition of community service and leaving a place better than they found it, whether that’s the park down the street or a school thousands of miles from home. We had 48 pairs of hands and we got to work.
We scraped and sanded desks, weeded the playground and garden, and mopped and dusted the school house. Some of our students even painted a new sign for the entry of the school.
When we were done, the Costa Rican kids, who ranged in age from preschool age to teenagers, performed traditional dances, and asked our students to join them. Then they played soccer and the students’ mothers treated us to juice and their delicious homemade jam.
It was a day our students planned for months in advance of our trip — researching what supplies the Costa Rican kids needed most, collecting donations, stuffing backpacks and boxing them up for the long flight. The visit made an impact — probably for our students much more than theirs — and the cultural connections they made will be remembered.
What happened two days later, however, might be remembered even more.
We brought way too much for just one school, especially one that has been well supplied by other international student groups traveling with EF. EF has been a great resource for this school and we were pleased to be traveling with an organization that gives back to the communities they travel through.
When we left Monterverde, we still had eight backpacks stuffed with supplies and a box of balls. We hoped we might come upon another school that could use them. And we did.
On our long bus trip from Monteverde to Manual Antonio, we spotted a small school on the side of the road and asked the driver to pull over. Our tour guide (who spoke much better Spanish than the rest of us) hopped out to see if the teacher of this school would like the rest of our supplies.
She returned moments later and said the teacher not only would be pleased to receive them, but she had asked us to come inside and meet her eight students.
Eight students — one for every backpack we had left.
We filed off the bus, walked up a dirt path and past an old barn to the school. To enter the school yard we had to pass under a gate with barbed wire stretched across it, so low the taller persons in our group had to duck. I felt like I had to duck, too, or risk scraping the top of my head.
I wondered why the barbed wire was hanging so low and if anyone had been injured by it. Why was it there anyway? Was it to keep animals out? Or vandals?
As I ducked, I wondered what they would think of our school. For sure the barbed wire would be a law suit at home. But of course, our schools are much more secure than that. Every door but the front one is locked. All visitors must immediately check in with the office, record their name, their business and wear a visible name tag. The rules are for the safety of our students and the result of too many school shootings in America. Why would our Costa Rican friends think of that?
We walked right into their school. Forty strangers, greatly outnumbering their eight students, one teacher, and one small room. The children welcomed us warmly, recited poems they wrote, invited us to a wall with a map so we could show them where we were from.
We gathered outside to distribute the eight remaining backpacks. The kids were all smiles and the teacher was close to tears. She told us she is normally the one who buys supplies for her students and was grateful we brought enough for the entire year. She felt blessed, she said. Our tour guide translated.
We loaded back on the bus and left, feeling more blessed than the teacher to be able to make this small gesture for her and her students.
And then an amazing and funny thing happened.
About 40 or so minutes down the road we came to a small town with a police officer in the middle of the road. He was madly waving his arms in the air.
“Stop! Stop!” he yelled in Spanish.
Of course we wondered what law we had broken. The bus driver slowed to a stop and opened the window to ask what was the problem. He said one of our students left his camera at the school we just visited. A student had found it and the kind teacher called down to the police station to intercept us because she wanted to return it.
After some debate, it was decided that our bus was too large to turn around on the narrow streets. Instead of all of us returning, the tour guide paid a local resident $10 to drive up and retrieve the camera. We waited in our bus, parked alongside the town’s small police station.
It was a day we would not soon forget.
Often the best part of traveling is the unexpected kindness of strangers.