Pura Vida, Mae!



My winter session in Costa Rica.

The week before classes started, while Cambridge was a mixture of freezing temperatures and snow, eleven members of the Harvard community and I traveled down to the warm and sunny city of Liberia in northern Costa Rica to build a house for PBHA’s Habitat for Humanity. The trip, which was a total of eight days, was an incredible mix of hard work, community service, and cultural education rolled into one. The group of twelve was composed of seniors Aleja Jiminez-Jaramillo, Helen Zhao, Sietse Goffard, Jenny Shi, and Lenica Morales-Valenzuela, juniors Saad Amer, Nicole Maloney, and Viviane Valdes, sophomores Nisreen Shiban and Vinh Nguyen, and Mather tutor Naseem Surhio.

After departing from our dorms at 3:30 am on Saturday morning, we arrived in San José, the capital city, by midday, and began our four-hour trek up to our destination. It was then that we met our hosts, Habitat guides Nathalie and Mariella, as well as our driver Mao, all of whom were absolutely phenomenal at leading us in the work ahead as well as integrating us into the Costa Rican culture. Upon arrival at our hotel in Liberia, we immediately fell asleep from pure exhaustion, but looked forward with eager eyes towards the adventurous week to come.

Our first full day in Costa Rica was one of relaxation. With work not starting until Monday, we had the entire Sunday to ourselves. We headed to a beach located about an hour away, where, after walking up and down 780 stairs, we finally found the whitest sand and clearest blue water I have ever seen. The crew set up shop under some palm trees and near a cliff, and immediately proceeded towards the water, swimming, playing games, and bonding with one another, starting off our week together just right. We eventually left that beach, only to watch the sunset on another—this one with matte black sand. Eventually, our day of relaxation ended and we left for bed, excited for the work ahead.

The week then followed a consistent pattern. Every day, we woke and had breakfast from 6:30 to 7:30, left for the work site where we worked until noon, and then broke for lunch. On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, we worked for another two hours after lunch, and on Wednesday and Friday, we proceeded to go out for cultural activities.

On the first day we were introduced to one member of the family moving in, Helen, and were told that due to work and classes, we would most likely never meet her husband. But we did meet her newborn daughter, and, despite the language barrier for some of us, we got to bond and share great memories with her as the week progressed. We also met Enrique, a foreman who had built over 1000 houses, who directed us for the week on what exactly to do.
The work started from scratch. We arrived at a plot of land filled with plants and containing a giant concrete slab for a car to park on. Our first job was to remove the plants, tear up the concrete slab, and level the land to begin the house. Another group was then chosen to begin digging a five-foot deep hole, along with a trench leading up to the hole for a septic system. Although we had to struggle with a tree that had to be removed, the clearing of the lot took only about half a day. Yet, the hole and trench managed to last the entire week. Approximately two to three feet into the ground—once one gets past the pesky roots—the ground turned to a mix of limestone and clay, making the digging especially difficult. Eventually, however, after many long hours, the whole team finally reached the desired depth, and left the situation almost complete.

After clearing the lot for preparation, we spent a day digging thirty-two small, ninety-centimeter holes that would serve as spots for giant columns to support the house. One group then lifted these columns into the holes, while another would mix and pour cement to keep them in place. On the last day of the job with all of the columns up, a group of workers slid massive concrete slabs in-between these columns, finishing the walls to the house, leaving the roof for next week when another team would arrive.

We all agreed upon arrival that we wanted to finish the house, and, effectively, that is what we did. The finishing touch, according to Enrique, would only take about another week, leaving us happy with the work we completed for Helen and her family.

Besides all the physical labor, however, we tried to immerse ourselves in the culture that we were surrounded by for the week. One day, after work, we went to a small plot of land nearby and played a soccer tournament with the local families. Even those of us constrained by our lack of Spanish-speaking ability could share in laughs, cheers, and competition in a sport so universally adored.
We also had a piñata party on the final day of work. Here, we helped to prepare and cook empanadas, blew up balloons, set up a piñata, and played games with the local children.
When not at the worksite, we explored Liberia by spending a day at a hot spring before walking around San José before departure.

Although when we landed back in Cambridge we were all exhausted from the week that had passed, no one had any regrets. Friendships were formed, a house was built, and some of us even learned some Spanish, most notably the phrase pura vida, mae, which literally means “pure life, dude,” but which Costa Ricans use colloquially to mean a number of things from “hello” to “thank you.” While reflecting on the trip as a group, many of us brought up similar setbacks—hitting some roots while digging, tiring out while lifting concrete, or struggling to break through clay—but not one of these low points could come close to outweighing the tremendous number of highs we each had over the course of the week.

Sean Frazzette ’16 (sfrazzette@college.harvard.edu) wants some more beans and rice.