San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘¡Los Gringos!’ Bring Service, Laughter to Village

Every day that week, after classes, the school doors fly open and eject flocks of galloping children. “¡Los gringos! ¡Los gringos!” they shout, as they race to the ramshackle kitchen. Never has the center of this small village been so full of life.

A dedicated group of nine U.S. adults with a Catholic group from New Jersey’s Our Lady of the Presentation has come to our village to do community service. During their stay here, they build a bus stop, help paint the interior of the church, participate in the teaching of English classes and perform a hilarious skit during a Sunday fair. These, at least, are their material achievements. And despite the fact that they are all terrific, these things are not the group’s greatest gift.

Picture a tiny village in the foothills of Cerro de la Muerte, some 25 kilometers from Cartago, southeast of San José. There is the traditional pulpería, often filled with men smoking and talking, a gem of a small metallic church, an elementary school, a small variety store, a lumberyard and charcoal factory, and a large community building with an attached kitchen.

The setting of the village is green and beautiful, but it can also be rather sad. It rains a lot, it is often cold, and most of the people are poor. By day, nearly all of the men and a good number of the women are out working. Many of them must scrounge work from one week or day to the next to put food on the table. Lately, some of the men have been making charcoal out of scrap wood, thus contaminating the air, putting at risk everyone’s health and spoiling the beauty of the surroundings. For those who must work outside, the bus leaves at 5:30 in the morning and doesn’t return until 6 at night. This is as true for the high school students as it is for the factory workers, so everybody gets home exhausted.

The children in the limited elementary school are exuberant, intelligent and beautiful, but they don’t have much to do. Periodically, the school or community sponsors an event, or I put on a play with them. They now have English classes with a WorldTeach volunteer. Most of the time, however, when they get out of school, they scatter or go hang around the smoke-filled pulpería.

Then, los gringos arrive.

Far from being a group of solemn genuflectors, they are young big-city dwellers, vibrant, motivated, hip and, above all, loving; they are people who will spend hours playing with the children, who fill the village everywhere with fervor, laughter, pura alegría. The children fall absolutely and irrevocably in love with them.

The tumbledown kitchen attached to the community building is where the volunteers eat, but it also becomes the place where they hang out together. One by one, village people begin to arrive, first children, then adolescents, finally adults. First, they stand outside the door and timidly watch, and I beckon them in. Soon, they all feel welcome, and the kitchen fills with jump-rope challenges, storytelling, ball playing, dancing and, most of all, laughter.

During the day, as they work, people initially watch timidly, afraid to offer help, afraid it is not their place. When it becomes clear that the Gringos want them to participate, they begin to pitch in. Never has work in the village been so joyous, so free of the fetters of obligation. I arrive one afternoon at the church to find a whole gaggle of women squealing and washing the paint out of each other’s hair with turpentine.

The two village women hired as cooks at first are terrified. How are they going to cook for these strange creatures? When Thomas, the leader of the group, shows them the peanut butter and explains that they are to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their lunch, they stare in wonder. They have never seen peanut butter before.

I am there day and night, reassuring them and giving instructions. They have never cooked brown rice before, and I show them how. One day, to vary the daily round of peanut butter, I show them how to make egg salad for sandwiches. When I return later, they both look downcast and tell me that the Gringos didn’t seem to like the sandwiches.

I am puzzled. Later, I learned from the volunteers that the ladies had spread the bread with peanut butter before putting in the egg salad. They thought that peanut butter was an ingredient in all Gringo sandwiches.

The volunteers’ last day here, we take them and all the children to a local waterfall, where one and all plunge gleefully in the freezing water, clothes, boots, shoes – it’s not important. I stand on the bank and watch, sorry that I am no longer young enough to be that crazy.

On the afternoon the volunteers must leave, our two cooks once again look downcast.

It soon becomes apparent why. At the moment of the adiós, they break down helplessly crying. In fact, at the moment of adiós, it seems that the whole village is crying. The Gringos promise to come back next year and do some more work, but this is not enough. Small groups of children sit at the new bus stop, sobbing. All of the volunteers seem to have two or three children hanging on them. Watching the grief of the children, I wonder if it is worth it. But yes, it is. Yes, yes, yes.

The village is quiet again now, the old kitchen locked and cheerless under the rain. But there is the new bus stop, a permanent testimony to the Gringos’ presence. The children tend it, carefully picking up any trash.

Their black eyes gaze longingly into the rain.

Please come back again next year, please, please, oh please.

‘Voluntourists’ in Costa Rica

Thomas Farley, senior editor of Town & Country Magazine, appears here with Wendy McSwain, former casting director for MTV in New York. Farley came to Costa Rica as part of a group of nine young Catholics from Our Lady of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, to carry out community service in the small village of La Estrella de El Guarco, about 25 kilometers from Cartago. He has been an editor for Town & Country for eight years and is editor of the book, “Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces,” an anthology of essays from his column, “Social Graces.” He was also founding editor of the magazine The World of Hibernia, no longer in publication, and finds the mountains of Costa Rica reminiscent of his beloved Ireland. Farley, for whom helping others is imperative, also had a hand in establishing the annual philanthropic edition of Town & Country. His Catholic youth group spent seven years making yearly trips to Mexico to build houses. This year he was ready for a new adventure, and, together with his friend, Wendy McSwain, hatched the idea of bringing a hand-picked group to La Estrella. Farley speaks fluent Spanish, loves Latin culture and prefers “voluntourism” any day to a regular vacation.

Wendy McSwain began her career in television communications in 1988 and spent five years as head of East Coast casting for MTV in New York City. She is spending this year in La Estrella de El Guarco as a WorldTeach volunteer. Like Farley, McSwain loves travel and volunteering – always with children. She worked for a year as an au pair in France and once participated in a program with orphans in Romania. She has loved her time in the small school in La Estrella because the program helps both the children and the host families where volunteers are housed, and it gave her the opportunity to bring Farley’s group to Costa Rica. She sought a new challenge in volunteer teaching and is now looking toward a career that will allow her to work with children while employing her media skills and pop culture sensibilities.

–Kate Galante


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