When I initially pursued this venture grant, I was experiencing anxiety everyday. I was confused with myself and my place in the world. I was longing to be content, to stop spending so many hours each day questioning myself, feeling overwhelmed, and crying for no apparent reason.
It was during the first week of third block, in my Intro to Psychology class, that I learned anxiety and depression are natural feelings the brains produces when in an identity exploration phase. I was relieved to discover this, but knew I couldn’t just ignore these feelings by continuing to endure my extremely busy schedule at school (class, track practice, writing for the paper, working and homework). I started thinking about taking time off, and as I worked up the courage to admit this to peers, teachers and family, I was shocked with the amount of encouragement I received. Within days, I had signed the form to take a semester leave of absence. And then I got busy writing my venture grant. My goal was to change the pace of my life–from constantly busy and overwhelmed to more relaxed with less expectations–and to get off technology completely. I was curious how these two major changes would effect me in a three week period.
After much research, I decided the place I wanted my venture grant to take place was Jungla del Jaguar, an isolated farm/hostel in the jungles of southern Costa Rica. I chose this place because there was no internet access there, it was surrounded by miles of nature and ocean and nothing else, and because of the values listed on their website:
- “Embrace other cultures it is the key for prosperity and growth”
- “Live and breathe the essence of community”
- “Display a relentless curiosity; strive to learn from others”
Between all these factors, it seemed like this would be the perfect place to become more content, at peace, and happy. Now that I have returned from my time there and have had time to reflect, there is a quote the rings true to my experience. “Sometimes when things go wrong, its because they would have turned out worse if they had gone right…”
DAY 1: ARRIVING IN PARADISE
6:47 AM: I awoke to the sound of crashing waves and singing birds. Sunlight poured through the top of our open tent, soaking my body in even more sweat. With the sun barely up, it was already nearly 90 degrees, something I would quickly have to get used to. I stepped outside the tent and no one was in sight. In every direction I was surrounded by coconut trees or the endless ocean, silencing me; astounding me. It is quite a shock to wake up somewhere insanely beautiful and isolated, even though I had been anticipating this day for months. My neck stings from already being sunburned–caused by sitting next to the window on our five our bus ride down the coast the day before. When the other six volunteers wake up, we will make breakfast together on the outdoor stove, being a student ecology group is renting out the main kitchen and sleeping area.
Leo, the 29 year old who owns the farm and his mother, Suzanna, who bought this property with her deceased husband back in the 1970’s, welcomed us with open arms when we got off the boat yesterday. Leo told us we will be making coconut oil, which apparently is a difficult, lengthy task, but I’m excited to learn how to do it. Knowing there is absolutely no wifi here makes me feel less anxious already. Each day can be filled with fun, reflection, and purpose and that’s all I can ask for right now. Time to go swim in the ocean before the others wake up!
Day 2: Busy, Sweaty, Happy
4:35 PM: After breakfast we had a volunteer meeting, where all of us volunteers took turns sharing how we felt, what was going on in our lives and what we wanted to do that day. I love that this will be my routine. I spent the rest of the morning raking leaves and collecting fallen coconuts with three other volunteers. We dripped sweat even though our work was in the shade. Because it was a tuesday, it was the day to make fresh bread, so the other three volunteers spent their morning boiling potatoes, mashing them with their hands, and mixing them into a dough with flour and yeast.
I just started reading the Happiness Project, which makes me feel guided on my own pursuit of happiness here. Gretchen spent hours and hours researching happiness which she says is ‘unexplainable, but the symptoms are noticeable’. According to Rubin, happiness is made up 50% by genes, 10%-20% by life circumstance such as age, gender, health, etc., and the remainder is a product of how the person thinks/acts. “People have an inborn disposition that is set within a certain range, but they can boost themselves to the top of their happiness range or push themselves down to the bottom of their happiness range by their actions.”
As I read more of the Happiness Project, I began making lists of habits I wanted to break, hobbies I wanted to pick up, and goals for my near and distant future. I started shell-collecting on the beach, reading in the hammocks, and reflecting in my journal every single day. These in-the-moment activities made me feel at peace.
Day 3: Hard Work is Kinda Fun
2:30 PM: We devoured the juiciest, sweetest, most vibrant pineapple this morning with our freshly baked bread and butter before spending three and a half hours raking leaves and coconuts into a “burn pile” on the rocks above the sea. Though this work doesnt sound like much fun, I am actually enjoying myself. The routine is soothing: wake up at sunrise, make our own breakfast, work for several hours, make our own lunch, work an hour more, and then spend the rest of the day hiking, swimming, collecting shells, reading and writing. Around 6:30p.m. all us volunteers put on our headlamps and make dinner outside together. In a few days, when the student group leaves, we won’t be cooking our own breakfast or dinner anymore, which will give us even more free time… life is good.
Day 4: Not Missing My Phone
8:58 PM: Earlier today, when we were husking coconuts, one of the girls from the student group came over to the only antenna on the property to send a text.
“Leave it on the antenna, there’s service there!” Her friend advised her.
“I already tried that but it said I didn’t have service still!” She pouted.
This almost made me laugh, which is ridiculous because I’m probably that a girl a lot of the time. But since arriving here I literally have no desire to text anyone or check who is posting on social media. Even crazier though–I don’t even tempted to post things on social media. Honestly, every inch of this place is a beautiful photograph. But these moments feel too special to be shared with the world. And because I don’t have the option to post or see what’s being posted, I find that I am enjoying each moment of the day so much more. It embarrasses me thinking about how much time I usually spend on my phone scrolling through my or someone else’s pictures. For what? What enjoyment do I get by spending time on a rectangular screen in my hand? Rather than absorb what is going on all around me in the moment?
There is no time to lie around and envy people on social media or wish I was somewhere else with someone else. All I can do is be present and see what each experience has to offer me. Whether it be running errands with my parents, reading a book assigned for class, or going out to eat with friends- I want to make a very conscious effort to listen intently and engage myself. Maybe I needed to spend months anxious and confused to end up here finally and realize how capable I am of finding the good, the growth, the adventure in everyday life. With my headlamp still on and my notebook and pen in hand, the songs of the ocean lull me to sleep.
Day 5: It’s Not Perfect in Paradise
5:45 PM: It’s not all sunshine and smiles here in paradise. My back is blistering, my legs are covered in dozens of itchy bug bites (see picture) and my middle finger has an extremely sensitive blister from raking without gloves. For at least an hour today, these irritations put me on edge and nearly brought me to tears. It is very hard to ignore physical pain, but right now I’m sitting on a rock watching the beautiful red ball of a sun set over the pacific ocean. Warm breeze sneaks through my loose, cotton shirt. I scratch sand out of my hair.
I’m sandy, burnt, and raw. I look like a mess probably, but feel powerful because I am learning about more myself everyday. “You are growing,” I whisper to myself as I watch the sun disappear.
Day 7: Weed and its Absence
8:00 AM: Prior to coming here, I was smoking weed everyday. Not all day everyday, but I at least ended every single day with getting high. And I don’t miss it. I feel unclouded right now; I feel awake and clear and alive. Smoking weed was my escape from anxiety and sadness for a couple months. It prevented me from dealing with my feelings and extending myself in social situations. I am glad I have this opportunity to be sober, off my phone, and experience the natural world.
10:03 PM: We hiked to two hours through the jungle to Rio Claro today, where we swam in the river, ate peanuts and pasta out of a tupperware together, and basked in the sunshine. After several beautiful hours there, we hiked back to Jaguar’s Jungle. I discovered something very interesting about myself towards the end of our hike: I became very bitter that I wasn’t included in the conversation and suddenly had a lot of anger inside me. It wasn’t until I looked back on this experience a few days later, that I realized this is a reoccurring issue. Neglect, at any level, makes me furious. I have developed a habit of expecting other people to fulfill the feeling of emptiness inside of me, but I realize now that’s crazy. I want to enter my adulthood being enough for myself. I desperately want to feel fulfilled on my own, and from now on that is what I am going to work on.
Day 8: Random, Meaningful Encounters
8:15 PM: I was sitting outside by myself earlier, stuck in a bad mood, when someone approached me with a smile. It was Benny, a 30 year old man backpacker from Norway who was staying at the hostel. He had only arrived today and I had barely spoken to him yet, but regardless, he sat down next to me and asked what I was doing. He told me he was studying meditation and letting go of negative feelings through it. It was so random that he came up to me and told me things I needed to hear. Human nature is so attached to negativity and Benny reminded me that I am no different–I need to make a conscious effort to change that habit. Our conversation made me want to read books on mindfulness and buddhist practice. Thanks for bringing me some clarity Benny!
3:00 PM: We ate the most delicious lunch of boiled carrots, fried potatoes, beans and onions, purple cabbage and mango salad, and watermelon. This colorful, simple lunch made me fall even more in love with food and the way it can make my body feel. A happy tummy helps me have a happy mind. Here is a thought I had today when thinking about my life before Jaguar’s Jungle: Although I truly believe a simpler life is a happier life, it becomes more complicated when you’re used to a life filled with constant stimulations. *Going from my college routine to being isolated with a handful of people in the jungle is a very different life*
Day 11: Discovering Character Flaws
9:28 AM: It was funny. This morning, the owner, Leo, was in a reasonable mood. He is usually quick to anger, very judge-mental, and unappreciative of the work we do. Not to mention he doesn’t make his expectations clear, but then gets upset when we make executive decisions. So this morning he came over to us before we started working and he wanted us to tell him about the work we had been doing the past few days, what we were enjoying or not enjoying. This caught us off guard. There had only been one volunteer meeting since i arrived–something I was hoping would be part of the daily routine. The volunteer meeting helped us sort out our feelings and our jobs for the day, but Leo and his mom aren’t big on organization. So we have this meeting and then we find out he had hooked up with a guest the night before. Good for him I guess.
For the next three hours I’ll be sweeping, making beds, and taking out the trash. Then we will all make lunch and read and swim and maybe go on a hike. Life could definitely be worse.
Day 13: More Advice from Gretchen Rubin
“Denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return.”
“To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.”
“The anticipation of happiness is sometimes greater than the happiness actually experienced. All the more reason to revel in anticipation.
12:47 PM: Following Gretchen’s advice about reveling in anticipation, I made a list of all the foods I was craving, because food is something that makes me most happy: ICE CREAM, vanilla almond crunch with coconut milk and raisins and blueberries and peaches, steak quesadilla with guacamole and sour cream, sushi, cheeseburger and milkshake, gluten free pasta with chicken apple sausage and peas and parmesean!
The excitement and happiness I felt after creating that list was surprising. It was such a marvelous feeling to know that I love food so much that I can deeply miss them. All the rice, beans and root vegetables we eat remind me that absence truly does make the heart grow fonder.
7:12 PM: For an hour before the sunset, four of us volunteers and four really cool guests all swam in the ocean and let the waves drag us up and down the sand, all the while laughing hysterically. We climbed into a tree for sunset and sat perched like monkeys as the sun said goodnight. It was a series of indescribable, blissful moments.
Day 15: Ranting
2:33 PM: I’m over it. I’m constantly sweating an uncomfortable amount and the number of bug bites I have is unbearable! On top of that, Leo is cocky, unhelpful, and bossy and his mom is lightweight crazy. I can’t believe I’m seriously paying to work here. It’s not just a few hours a day either– he expects cleaning after breakfast and after dinner too! Volunteers pay $15 for food, but lately all we have had to eat is rice and beans and yuca. That costs less than a dollar. I wouldn’t even mind doing this labor but I seriously expect to be treated with kindness, appreciation and patience. Leo is none of those things. In fact, he often orders us to do something without clear instruction, and then will get very annoyed if we ask questions. But he still expects a perfect final result. I am sick of trying to please him. Plus, him and his mom give us opposite instructions a lot of the time. For example, when telling us how to make coconut oil Leo says, “keep it on a low heat ALWAYS, and don’t let it burn. Or I’ll be pissed.” And his mom says to us later, “When you’re making the coconut oil, just put the heat on high and stir constantly.” See how that could be a little confusing? Especially when a failed attempt results in Leo shaming us.
There is an absurd amount of pressure on us volunteers to make the hostel run smoothly, to make sure everyone is taken care of and served dinner, to clean people’s bed and bathrooms. The more I think about it, the more resentment I feel. This isn’t a farm–this is a hostel that didn’t want to hire a cleaning staff, so paying volunteers get stuck doing the dirty work.
For a while before I wrote this blog, I debated whether or not I should include anything about Leo at all. On one hand, he has nothing to do with my project, but on the other hand, he is heavily affecting my mood on a daily basis- and that’s something worth noting. I mean, for the most part, I really enjoy being here. The other volunteers are great, the guests here have been so full of life and love, and the scenery is pretty unbeatable. That said, it’s been a little difficult assessing my happiness growth lately…
Things don’t always go according to plan. Time to overcome this adversity and let things take their course. I will find what I need in the end no matter how rocky my journey is.
8:44 PM: Leo informed us that he will be gone the next three days at the Envision music festival. The six of us volunteers are jumping for joy. He leaves at 7AM tomorrow. This last week is going to be the best yet, I will make sure of it.
Day 16: Less Work, More Play
11:47 AM: With Leo gone, Suzanna is in charge. She is a little distracted, to put it nicely, so we only work for about an hour after breakfast, and then we decide to make a coconut cake. Suzanna is very excited by this cake, and doesn’t bother asking us to do anymore work that day. Instead, I spend my day watercoloring, eating pineapple and drinking coffee.
I found out something else about Leo today. It turns out Leo’s luck with females is a common thing. In fact, he has slept with more than half of the females I’ve met since being here, guests and volunteers. Thinking about it, almost all of the volunteers he accepts are young, attractive girls and many of the guests that come also fit that profile. Suddenly, I’m very angry that I am cleaning and cooking for this man. Leo takes a lot of girls on adventures to the nearby caves, takes them out spear fishing with him, or leads them on guided hikes. I’ve been here for a two weeks and he hasn’t done one single thing with me- maybe because I’m not a single girl? Is there really an underlying incentive when he takes people on adventures? (It will turn out that for the entire three weeks I stay at Jaguar’s Jungle, Leo will never once offer to do something with me).
Discovering that the person I’m working for is promiscuous with the people I work with and the people I’m cleaning up after really pisses me off. But, for now, I’m just so glad he isn’t around that I decide to not let it ruin my few days of freedom; instead, I choose to watercolor for hours and hours on end.
7:12 PM: I have been watercoloring most of the day and am so obsessed. It is the most exciting way to spend my time right now, perhaps because I am improving and that artistic growth is very satisfying. There is a couple from Denmark here right now who have been telling me why Denmark is such an appealing place to live. They are so well taken care of by their government it’s mind blowing. One of them is a teacher and the other is a carpenter. They never work more than 35 hours a week and are provided great health care and vacation time. They told me that even if they bought a house, had multiple children and kept their same jobs, they would still make enough money to go to Costa Rica every year.
What I find interesting about this is that my personal essay when applying to Colorado College involved me going to both Costa Rica and Denmark, two countries whose citizens claim to be very happy. I wanted to explore the similarities and differences between these two countries and the US, to understand what made these places so happy. What I believe now is that Costa Rica and Denmark are happy for the opposite reasons: Denmark gives their citizens a huge sense of security, whereas Costa Ricans learn to live off the land and be grateful for life even when they have very little. That is mainly why I chose to come to Costa Rica to explore my happiness–because I wanted to let go of possessions, of technology, of constant stimulations. I wanted to connect with nature and embrace the Pura Vida mantra of this country. With my time here almost up, I feel successful in what I wanted to accomplish and am excited to see what these final few days have in store for me.
Day 18: Open Heart
8:11 AM: Three volunteers left left this week, so now there are only three of us. That means that we are washing dishes ALL DAY. It’s kind of funny, how perpetually dirty the kitchen is and how often it requires being cleaned. Also, because Leo isn’t here to make sure things are running smoothly, we are dangerously low on food. All we have in the pantry is rice, beans, roots, coffee and pasta. There are no fruits or veggies. The one guest here right now has been paying for meals that consist of only three elements and very little nutritional value. We feel so bad, but he understands it’s not our fault. Instead, he eats his plain pasta, rice and beans with a smile, and thanks us whole heartedly.
12:45 PM: Besides cooking and minimal cleaning, we haven’t been doing much work at all these past few days. Instead, we’ve been swimming a lot, reading for hours on end, and making “cakes” out of the last bits of plantains, flour and sugar in the kitchen. I feel very lucky to have met so many amazing people here from all over the world. Gloria Steinem, the author of My Life on the Road, writes that “Traveling is the best way to open your heart.” This experience is really a chance for my to open my heart, to be honest, and to grow. This opportunity to explore who I am is very special, and I won’t let myself forget that…
5:32 PM: I’m sitting on the porch wondering to myself, am I happier now than I was before coming here? And as I wonder this, I take a good look around me. One volunteer reads in her hammock by the beach, while a guest practices slacklining with the help of a friend. The tide is low and the waves are mellow. Birds sing in the jungle surrounding me and two little monkeys nibble on seeds in the tree to my right. The sun is setting, painting the sky in all sorts of red, oranges, and pinks. And I think, yes I really am. I am able to just be now. I am at ease, less anxious, and am not constantly wanting things to be different. I have a newfound appreciation for the phrase “give it time” because I have found it to be very true. In time, the changes, the experiences, the feelings you are looking for–you will find them. It just takes time.
Day 19: Leo Returns, Food Returns, I’m Ready to Leave
11:34 AM: Leo returned this morning, and brought a boat full of food with him. We had pancakes with caramel sauce and papaya for breakfast. It was almost luxurious. For lunch we are frying freshly caught fish, boiling carrots, frying sweet plantains, and making a salad to go with the usual rice and beans. The abundance of food instantly improves my attitude, reminding me what an important role food plays in my life.
I woke up this morning determined to keep a positive mindset, no matter what Leo does or says. But as it turns out, now that some of the other volunteers have left, Leo suddenly wants to talk more with us three remaining volunteers. “You know, me and those girls, we just didn’t get along…” Leo admits sheepishly about two of the volunteers who just left, “I couldn’t be myself around them.” As if that justifies his lack of engagement with us these past three weeks. This is a 29 year old man who runs a business where eager travelers pay to come work for him–it’s not okay for him to decide he doesn’t like someone and therefor not compensate them for the work they are doing. It’s not like I want to spend any alone time with this guy, but I certainly would have felt better about working for him if he had took my snorkeling, spearfishing, or on a hike to see the nearby waterfall.
But I have accepted that this experience didn’t go exactly as planned. And honestly, I think I have grown more because of the setbacks presented in this situation. This morning, I swept and mopped the kitchen, the deck, and the yoga room. Then I took out the trash and cleaned/organized the office shelves. Two weeks ago, this work would have made me spiteful and sad, since I had been expecting to be harvesting/planting fruits. But today, I don’t mind. After lunch, I will journal more, I will finish another book in my favorite hammock as I listen to birds sing, and I will swim in the ocean as the sun sets with new friends… So all in all, I really can’t complain.
Day 21: Goodbye and Good Riddance. And Thank You for the Memories
6:46 AM: These past few days have been crazy in a good way. There was nearly 15 guests here two days ago, the majority from the Envision Music Festival. Between making sure they all got breakfast, lunch and dinner, sweeping their dorms everyday and cleaning all their used bed spreads, it’s been a hectic 48 hours. A group of 4 that came from Envision, three guys and a girl, were such an amazing handful of humans to meet. They brought such light and positivity with them, always playing music from their portable speakers and making guacamole and sweet potato fries together. Last night, the three of us volunteers, the Tico named Oswaldo who works here full time, and the four of them played music and danced late into the night. We took turns controlling the speaker and playing freeze dance. Oswaldo speaks no english, and the rest of us can’t fluently speak spanish, but this kind of activity only requires communication through energy and movement. It was a beautiful end to the trip.
And now it’s nearly seven in the morning, it’s pouring rain, and I’m waiting for the boat to come pick me up. I drink coffee and journal in silence. The anticipation of what’s to come makes me excited. I’ve spent every day for the past three weeks working on being present. I’ve also journaled every day. In a few weeks, when I return to the states, I will look back on all my journal entries and turn them into a blog. It’s so crazy how time has passed. “The days are long, but the weeks are short,” Gretchen Rubin taught me.
I am leaving this experience with new knowledge. I now fully understand the huge role technology plays in my life. While I love taking pictures, looking back on good memories, and being able to stay in touch with friends, ultimately, technology takes away from me living in the moment. I got so used to spending time on social media and worrying about the future or the past, that I forgot how important it was to just live my life. I am leaving here with the desire to fully experience every moment of each day, and to really appreciate the simple things in life. I want to hug trees, swim in the ocean, and listen to people talk. I want to wake up excited and go to bed satisfied. Happiness is not something I can just obtain, it’s a state of being that I must learn. Leo may not have been the best boss, and this work may not have been what I was expecting, but it really was the perfect opportunity for growth: “We don’t grow when things are easy, we grow when we face challenges.” So thank you Leo for making me angry, upset, and resentful. Thank you to the friends I met along the way who encouraged me and reassured me. Thank you to my parents for supporting my desire to take time off of school and learn from traveling. And a big thank you to the Venture Grant Committee for funding this opportunity! I am infinitely grateful for this experience.