“Sí…bueno…sí….claro. Oki. Chau.”
I hung up the phone in the Groups office of CPI and stared, wide-eyed, around the room. Oh no. It was my first day as a Grupos CPI chaperone, and I had just gotten off the phone with my boss who had given me a list of things to accomplish. (Actually, that was just an educated guess because I had spent the previous five minutes pretending to know exactly what she was saying while only catching about 2% of the conversation).
To make matters worse, my fellow chaperone knew what had happened and could only laugh mercilessly when I begged her to call my boss back and ask for the list again.
All my warm and fuzzy feelings about Costa Rica and the pura vida evaporated in one phone call, and I had only been in the country for 24 hours. I’m never going to make it. Lucky for me, my boss was amazingly kind and understanding and I rebounded quickly. My first group was fifteen 12 year-old boys from Texas, and I had to get my act together quickly because if I thought my Spanish was lackluster in that moment, they certainly knew way less than I did and would be relying on me for the next two weeks to navigate them around the country. Oh boy.
(And although I’m pretty sure my boss had complete confidence in me, she still sent her own bilingual 12 year-old son with me just in case I really got in a bind. And I did. Several times, actually.)
What I would learn about myself, CPI, and Costa Rica over the rest of that summer is probably what kept me returning year after year. Everything that I loved about our school and the experience that it provided me I now got to share with other people. I got to teach our students and guests about something I so deeply loved myself. I took groups whitewater rafting, navigated the public bus system with them, explained that the sparks they saw in the shower that morning were nothing to be concerned about, and watch them grow and change from the initial stages of homesickness and culture shock to true Ticos de corazón.
I worked with groups of 5 students to 35 students, with middle schools, high schools, and universities. Groups that fit in our school’s Sprinter van to groups that required a 50-passenger charter bus. Each group as unique as the itinerary we carefully designed for them. I got a front row seat to the intricate, behind-the-scenes work that CPI employees do in order to ensure a first class experience for all of their students. From personalized activities and trips to last minute details and home-stay arrangements, everything is so carefully crafted and executed, and I felt honored to be a part of it.
Of course, I got to meet tons of new people and explore new places, and by the time my fifth season as a chaperone rolled around, I felt like a pro. I also become a sponge, soaking up everything I could about our school, the country and the people. To this day, if you ask me to give the recent history of Costa Rica or explain the concept of a cloud forest, I can spew out more information than you’d probably care to have. I can identity certain animals, birds, and geographic regions, as well as speak to the rich indigenous traditions and booming coffee industry that the world knows so well.
Long gone are the days of my novice Spanish-speaking skills trying to navigate a conversation with my boss and in its place, I am a wealth of information and experience and above all else, passion. I am passionate about CPI and I am passionate that your experiences will make you so as well. If there is anything I have truly learned (besides how to have a legitimate phone conversation in Spanish) it is that once you spend a little time in Costa Rica and with our school you cannot leave unchanged and you will always come back.
Oh, and that I can also make a surprisingly accurate Howler Monkey call as well.