Friday, January 18, 2013

Alternative Winter Break--Costa Rica!

So we all know winter break is pretty awesome: that feeling of liberation after your last final and knowing the holidays are right around the corner is indescribable. But, you haven't really had a complete winter break until you've participated in Alternative Winter Break! The organization is entirely student-led and it sends trips across the US and around the world to perform acts of community service in areas ranging from child services to environmental conservation. My specific trip was located 2 flights and an 8-hour bus ride away from Charlottesville in the untouched rainforest of Playa Blanca, Costa Rica.

In Playa Blanca, we stayed just steps from the beach on a site owned by a truly selfless family. Dona Christina, a 60-year old grandma-turned second mother to us, cooked authentic cuisine while her son, Pablo, and a Spanish research assistant led us in exploring our surroundings through service and adventure. The trip was environmentally oriented in 2 areas. For one, we put out nets in order to catch sea turtles so we can take their measurements, tag them, remove parasites, and begin to get a rough estimate of the regional population. We also helped with a coastal mangrove restoration project. In a nutshell, the trip was the best money I've ever spent. Interacting with the friendly locals, immersing myself in nature and issues of conservation, and really doing something so worthwhile while seeing the world made this such a formative experience for me. I can't really even describe how much we did in just 10 days at the site. *Note, the service was so hands-on that it was difficult to get many pictures besides of free time, but we did real work, I promise! Here are a few of the highlights:

The view! We stayed in cabins all along the beach, from which we launched boats every morning to do everything from catching turtles to going to a remote beach to break open coconuts and drink the milk.

Catching our first turtle! We took its measurements before tagging and releasing it. We put a towel over its face to keep it calm, but occasionally this wasn't enough and the turtles would have projectile bowel movements on whoever was working.

Being invited by the local townspeople to play in a friendly soccer match (and winning, naturally).

Saving a turtle's life by removing deadly parasites and treating injuries from our on-shore site.

Taking adventures on our free time on hikes and on kayaks and seeing exotic animals such as the sloth above.

Meeting such great new friends and learning so much from those less privileged who are yet still so generous and hospitable--like Dona Christina on the left!

All I can say is that if you can afford to participate in Alternative Winter or Spring Break, DO IT! Domestic trips are extremely affordable and they do so much good for people and communities in need.  I think about this trip and all the adventures we took, all the animals we helped, and all the incredible people we met almost every day. Contact me (at or anyone in the ASB organization if you want to make a difference and change your perspective! I know I did.

-Will Andrewes, CLAS Class of 2015

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