Costa Rica with Discover Corps: The Gifts of Vacationing with Purpose

The following guest post was written by my good friend, Kiernan Andrews. Enjoy!

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The following guest post was written by my good friend, Kiernan Andrews. Enjoy!

- Aaron

One might call Dorothy’s trip to the Emerald City a “vacation with purpose.”

Although she didn’t intentionally travel to Oz on a well-priced international flight (with a long layover in Panama City), Dorothy had a definite purpose for her travels: make it to the Emerald City and find the Wizard of Oz so he could send her back home.

The purpose behind my first vacation with Discover Corps was comparatively straightforward: I wanted a 40th birthday bucket list adventure with a do-gooding twist.

The notion that we would make lifelong memories on this trip was never in doubt, but I never imagined that a mere eight days could have such lasting effects on our attitudes and beliefs about the world and our places in it.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

VOLUNTOURISM

After months of researching various “voluntourism” organizations and the potential pitfalls of that budding industry, I chose to travel with Discover Corps.

In addition to being an environmentally and culturally responsible company, Discover Corps offers a catalogue of incredible vacation opportunities.

I chose their Costa Rica Family Volunteer Adventure.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

It hit all the main destinations I hoped to visit in Costa Rica and included opportunities for cultural connections with families, tree planting, working in a rainforest wildlife sanctuary—plus many chances for an adrenaline fix.

Granted, the itinerary included more vacationing than volunteering, but that fit with my goals for this trip—goals that took into account the wishes of my travel companions: my 9-year-old daughter, K, and my eh-hem… ___-year-old mother (who now has a 40-year-old daughter!)

ARE YOU NERVE-CITED?

Just like Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City would have floundered without the companions she met along the way, our trip would not have been complete without the wonderful people who became our travel family during this week.

Through sheer luck, our group happened to be made up of four loving mother-daughter pairs, and not a-one of us was taller than 5’2”! (First person to make a Munchkin joke gets a kick in the shin.)

We came from all over the United States but found that we connected easily and felt comfortable with one another from the start. The two teenage girls on our tour took K under their wings like she was a fun cousin, as opposed to a pesky little sister or a stranger.

She absolutely lit up with their attention.

The entire group was so encouraging and patient with her, which gave her confidence a major boost.

On the trip, and afterwards, we repeatedly used a concept introduced by our 16-year-old travel companion. She coined the term “Nerve-cited” to help K see her anxious feelings as part of the excitement and fun of new experiences.

Even her therapist mom couldn’t convince her to buy into this idea, but there is nothing like the positive power of a Super Cool Role Model.

Nerve-cited will forever be part of our lexicon.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel
Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

CULTURE COMES ALIVE

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel
Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

I cannot say enough positive things about our intrepid tour guide, Ozzie, who made the entire trip entertaining, educational, and easy! We might even call him the Wizard Oz, but that is probably taking the metaphor too far.

Ozzie did have a magical way of creating jaw-dropping experiences. He was incredible at spotting wildlife from the van and setting us up with his spotting scope.

He knew all the best restaurants and what to order. In fact, he knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

Ozzie has been tour guiding in his country for over 20 years and his love for and pride in Costa Rica was apparent.

He made the history and culture come alive in a way that helped us all feel connected to the people and places we saw.

IN THE MOMENT

Best of all, he wasn’t “The Man behind the Curtain.” He was the man climbing all over the vehicle, making sure we had plenty of water, letting us know what would be happening next and what we needed to bring, calling ahead for information, helping us find the various items we needed, and always keeping the energy positive.

He called K by a pet name for the whole trip, which became our travel team’s celebratory, battle, and way-finding call: “CaCao!”

On top of all that, he took photographs of us during activities, so we could get out from behind the lens and just be in the moment. As the mom who sometimes gets caught up in documenting and then comes home from a trip with no photographic evidence of my being there, this was a priceless gift.  

Dorothy and her companions each had a specific gift they hoped to request from the Wizard at the conclusion of their quest. Tinman desired a Heart, Dorothy pined for Home, the Scarecrow dreamed of a Brain, and the Cowardly Lion was desperate for Courage.

By choosing a vacation focused around volunteering and making cultural connections, we received each of these gifts without even having to ask a wizard.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

GIFT #1: HEART

As a therapist, I lecture regularly about the value of practicing kindness toward others and compassion toward ourselves to improve mental health and live a happier life.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel
Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

From the moment we booked our trip, I knew that Discover Corps was a company with a big heart. Everyone I communicated with was helpful, friendly, and willing to go out of their way to simplify every step of our international adventure.

I was able to get specific information about options and accommodations for my anxious daughter. When my father was forced to cancel last-minute, the process was smooth and seamless.

When we arrived at our destination, we were blown away by the generosity and heartfelt caring we received and witnessed from the people of Costa Rica.

I was especially struck by the warm way the Ticos (Costa Rican men) treat one another. It was common to see men hugging one another, little boys kneeling to help tie their buddy’s shoes, men laughing and joking together but not teasing each other in hurtful ways.

The kindness we experienced from the people of Costa Rica inspired me to look for more opportunities to wear my heart on my sleeve and reach out to others in a caring way.

The examples set by our Costa Rican hosts gifted me with greater ability to see the best in myself and others, the result of which brings me palpable joy.

GIFT #2: HOME

In my work as a therapist I am constantly guiding my clients to re-examine their values, shifting from extrinsic values like material wealth to healthier and more fulfilling intrinsic values like compassion.

By American suburban standards, the homes we visited in Costa Rica weren’t much—few exterior walls, no windows, and basic functional furniture.

But the love that was shared in these spaces, the generosity with which they welcomed us, and the way the houses fit perfectly in the environment allowed us to glimpse what Home truly means.

K observed that the people we met in Costa Rica seemed more connected to the land, “while we are over here with our devices and our air conditioning.”

This insight has rippled to how we live in and use our home in several ways.

Often, Costa Ricans make a huge pot of their staple Arroz con Pollo (“rice with chicken”) to share with guests. We have been quicker to invite friends and family to join us for simple meals instead of waiting for the opportunity to put together something fancy or impressive.

Costa Ricans also tend to include outdoor spaces in their living area as much or more than the indoor spaces. We have made more use of our yard, making outside time a part of our routine, and growing a small vegetable garden.

As much as possible, we also try to bring the outside in, filling our home with houseplants that we saw growing wild in Costa Rica. Caring for these plants in our home gives us a tangible link to our vacation memories.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel
Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

Material girl? Not any more.

The most astonishing take-away from the trip was one I never expected, especially from a 4th grader born and raised in the good ol' US of A.

During and after the trip she commented several times on how the people we met in Costa Rica seemed to have fewer material possessions but seemed happier than people back home.

The children we visited with enjoyed active play with very basic toys, like jump ropes and wooden blocks instead of electronics and fancy toys. By witnessing the contrast, she got a glimpse into American consumer culture, and she didn’t seem to like what she saw.

The begging never came!

A couple of months after we returned home, we were shopping at Target, our favorite well-styled mecca of consumerism.

She was admiring some small toys, which consist mostly of layers of packaging and a tiny surprise toy inside. She had been coveting these toys for months prior to the trip, and a “Special Edition” had finally become available.

I braced myself for the onslaught of begging, pleading, and bargaining that would come at any moment.

But it didn’t come.

Instead, she looked at me, as if a shocking realization had just come to her, and said, “Mommy, I think I want this toy just because the commercials make it look so cool, and because it is a surprise. But once I get it home and unwrap it, it will just be like, ‘Meh…whatever’ and I probably won’t even play with it. Then I will just want the next toy that looks cool. I don’t really need this.”

I think my jaw bounced off that shiny tile floor. I may have even gotten teary-eyed.

What an incredible lesson she learned—a lesson I could not have pounded into her brain if I lectured on it daily.

So far, she has continued living by this uncomfortable new understanding of her values. She pauses to consider carefully before asking for any new item.

I continue to admire her insight.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

GIFT #3: BRAIN

I could fill pages and pages with the things we learned on our Discover Corps vacation (in fact, we did, in our travel journals; See How to Create an Epic travel Journal with Your Child).

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

One of K's areas of special interest is the natural world. During our trip to Costa Rica we had opportunties to see and learn about animals in the wild, including an exciting night hike through the rainforest.

We had the rare chance to get up close to exotic animals while volunteering at the Kids Saving the Rainforest animal sanctuary. We witnessed the detrimental effects of irresponsible human behavior on wildlife—animals often get hurt or lose their wild behaviors.

Monkeys behaving badly

Luckily, there were no flying monkeys on this trip, but there was a troop of naughty White-Faced Capuchin who launched a full-scale SWAT style assault on the al fresco breakfast buffet at our seaside resort. That capuchin coming down through the skylight in the thatched roof to snatch a banana is a sight I never will forget!

Unfortunately, that behavior is one more sign of people behaving badly and getting the wildlife hooked on sugar-filled human food. Something that has particularly stuck in K's mind is the dangerous chain reaction that can be set off by something as simple as tossing an apple core on the ground by the road.

The fruit attracts rodents, which attract birds of prey, who can be badly injured by cars. At the wildlife sanctuary we met a blind eagle who had been hurt in this way.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

A lasting impression

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

After returning from Costa Rica, we have increased our efforts to recycle, choose environmentally friendly products, avoid single-use plastics, and buy organic food (we heard horror stories of the effects of pesticides on the workers in the banana and palm oil plantations).

We have donated several times to the organization we volunteered with, Kids Saving the Rainforest, and we are intentionally offsetting our carbon footprint through contributions to highly regarded organizations protecting the rainforest.

It really struck home that it's not enough to simply be reasonably good citizens of this planet; we must work to become thoughtful stewards of our earth.

A lasting impression

After returning from Costa Rica, we have increased our efforts to recycle, choose environmentally friendly products, avoid single-use plastics, and buy organic food (we heard horror stories of the effects of pesticides on the workers in the banana and palm oil plantations).

We have donated several times to the organization we volunteered with, Kids Saving the Rainforest, and we are intentionally offsetting our carbon footprint through contributions to highly regarded organizations protecting the rainforest.

It really struck home that it's not enough to simply reasonably good citizens of this planet; we must work to become thoughtful stewards of our earth.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel
Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

GIFT #4: COURAGE

Courage may be the most dramatic, but also the most anticipated gift we received from our Discover Corps adventure.

I wouldn’t dare make a Cowardly Lion comparison, but as I mentioned, my daughter is quite sensitive and somewhat anxious—especially in new or unfamiliar situations. (She comes by that naturally. I just happen to be one of the rare adventure-seeking anxious people).

For many months leading up to the trip we faced tears and anxiety over the “adrenaline package" that I chose to supplement our family adventure.

The package included ziplining in the Monteverde Cloud Forest and white water rafting outside of Manuel Antonio National Park. While adrenaline is not her idea of a good time, she usually ends up loving new activities once she gives them a try.

Therefore, I stubbornly cling to the hope that these lovingly-forced ventures will be enjoyable and help her overcome her nerves.

Mermaids, fairies and unicorns

The first challenge of the trip was the long flight, which she handled masterfully, using a meditation technique involving “teleporting” to her magical island.

She learned to deal with her fear of flying by slowing her breathing and imagining herself in a safe place, adding in all the sensory details to make it come alive in her mind. The safe place could be anywhere (mine is a cabin porch overlooking Lake Tahoe), so naturally she created an island filled with mermaids and fairies and unicorns.

Hanging bridges and howler monkeys

The next big challenge was the hanging bridges and ziplining in Monteverde Cloud Forest. She was a champion on the hanging bridges and was rewarded for her bravery with an up-close encounter with a troop of howler monkeys, including a mama carrying her infant on her back who walked right past us on the bridge.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

That success notwithstanding, K stuck to her guns and declined the ziplining tour—despite being urged to go by everyone around her (except grandma, who is far too wise to give advice).

Ozzie was kind and resourceful enough to get her ticket exchanged for two additional nature tours which were more her speed. As much as my vicarious Fear of Missing Out pained me, once I was up on those ziplines I recognized that she had absolutely made the right decision for herself.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

It wasn’t one zipline to conquer, as I had imagined. The course consisted of a series of 16 ziplines that were high, long, and FAST. I loved every second of it, but it would certainly have been traumatic for her.

In hindsight, I recognized how much courage it took for her to do what felt right, even when many other people tried to convince her to do otherwise.

In addition to building her own courage, I gained a new respect for her ability to judge for herself what is scary, and what is TOO scary.

She demonstrated this discernment the day we volunteered at the Kids Saving the Rainforest wildlife sanctuary.

We started the day with a tour of the facilities and introductions to all the animals and their backstories. It was strongly impressed upon us that wild animals can and should never be made into pets—sometimes with frightening examples of why not.

Even after these cautionary tales, she was willing to go into enclosures to retrieve food dishes for washing, help move huge birds to their cages, and even feed the animals inside their homes.

She felt anxious, but she was willing to act anyway— the embodiment of courage.

She had the opportunity to repeat this lesson later the same day as we played in the waves at the beach. She got knocked down and dunked by a surprisingly powerful wave, stinging salt water flowing into her eyes and up her nose.

My immediate thought was that fun time was over for the day, but again I was proven wrong. After a quick cry, she rallied and got back out in the waves. She was so proud of herself for going back into the ocean after her scare, but not half as proud as I was!

She wrote nonchalantly in her journal that night, “I got knocked all the way under the water, but it’s ok—cause I’m ok.”

You will NOT fall out of the boat!

When the much-anticipated white water rafting day finally arrived, we all woke up feeling nervous. K was nervous about rafting, and I was nervous about her. She couldn’t eat breakfast because of a tummy ache (classic sign of anxiety) and she was mostly silent on the long bus ride out to the river.

It didn’t help that we spotted a big crocodile sunning on the bank as the bus crossed the Sevegre River that we were about to raft.

After gearing up and meeting our rafting guide, Jesus, we climbed into our raft for the safety lesson.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

K had been hoping that she could just sit in the bottom of the boat, but because of our small crew, she had to perch on the side and paddle with the rest of us.

When he noticed the tears she was desperately trying to hold back, our guide promised her that she would NOT fall out of the boat, and that after the first set of rapids she would LOVE it.

Skeptical, but resigned to her fate, she nodded her head and we pushed off. We were expecting a Class II float down a lazy river, but the massive rainstorm from the day before bumped up the excitement factor to a Class III+.

The first set of rapids had us completely underwater and out of breath! It took two sets of rapids instead of one, but our guide was proven right. After the second set of white water, K was whooping for more and singing a happy tune to herself as we paddled.

She shocked us all by jumping right into the river when we had a chance, and by walking under the waterfall on our snack stop.

The dreaded white-water rafting became one of her favorite activities of the entire tripone she would have missed if she had let her fear be the boss.

PIN A BADGE ON THAT GIRL!

She has earned it!

Dorothy may have been right, there is No Place Like Home—and thank goodness for that!

Getting out of our comfort zone allowed us to experience massive personal growth, gain insights we couldn’t have seen from a “safer” distance, and bolster our connections with each other and to the world.

The gifts of Heart, Home, Brain, and Courage are natural outcomes of vacationing with purpose.

Discover Corps - Voluntourism - Family Travel

About the author, Kiernan Andrews

Kiernan Andrews is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, single working mom to an awesome Lil’ K, baker of cakes, and seeker of adventures.

Kiernan loves travel, random acts of kindness, and corny puns.

You can find her on Instagram @kiernanandrews or email her at kiernan.andrews@gmail.com.

2 Comments

  1. The Gifts of Vacationing with Purpose is Kiernan Andrews’ deeply personal account of the transformation and purpose she experienced on a Discover Corps trip to Costa Rica with her mother and 9-year-old daughter.

  2. […] looks cool. I don’t really need this.” The mother wrote a fantastic piece about her experience here. As a father of two young daughters, this story really struck a chord with me and it’s something […]

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