Learning through new situations and new people

By: Fine Leah, high school alumna High School Study Abroad, Wildlife Biology

This trip has taught me so much. I have learned how to be comfortable around new people and new situations. I now understand that although it may seem you have nothing in common with a person—not even a language—you are still in the same boat. I’ve learned that laughter and ice cream are universal.

The most important thing I’ve learned, though, is that there is more to travel than tourism. Going to another country shouldn’t be about sipping drinks in the hot tub. It’s an opportunity to make a real impact on the environments and communities around you.

This lesson began for me on the way to the tiny village of Tortuguero. Traveling down the quiet, murky river on a boat that felt as though it would tip over at any moment, I realized that we weren’t just on a vacation. And I was right. Upon arriving in Tortuguero, we became part of a research team and a warm community.

Every night, we’d walk out onto the black sand beach to look for sea turtles. No lights were allowed, and the smallest log or even the high tide line became obstacles to overcome. We were tired and bugbitten, but the moment our group saw the dark streaks of turtle tracks, none of that mattered. Watching a turtle laying its eggs—hearing each breath, seeing each tear—was a reward like none I’d gained from any other travel experience. I was leaving more than footprints on that beach. I was helping save a species.

Every moment at the research station was rewarding. Sitting in the blessedly air conditioned library watching the World Cup with the research assistants and writing papers on ecotourism, my group came together as a part of a team. One day, we started a game of soccer in the field outside the dorm. The women who cooked our meals joined in, and some of the research assistants watched and laughed. Dodging trees and iguanas and trying to keep the ball out of the canals, we enjoyed the time spent with new friends.

Some of the best experiences I had were in the village of Tortuguero. By the end of our week there, we recognized many of the people in the town. We frequented the bakery and ice cream shop, and even knew the names of several of the town’s dogs.

One day, we headed to the local elementary school to help teach the kids English. The experience was overwhelming at first—I speak no Spanish, and communicating was almost impossible. But by recess, we had bonded with these kids even without words. One of the girls took my hand and led me to a tiny grocery store, where she bought a few popsicles and then held one out to me. “Really?” I asked. “Si!” she replied. The gift was small—the popsicle cost just under five cents—but the impact it had on me was huge.

After recess, I sat in a third grade classroom with my tripmate Christine and two of the students, Martha and Pamela. Together, we drew pictures. Pointing to a fish, I asked, “En Español?” “Pescal,” Martha answered. “In English,” I said, “Es fish.” “Fish,” she repeated, in a timid, accented voice.

I didn’t just teach the kids at the school. They taught me. And I learned more than Spanish—I learned the impact two lives can have on each other once you reach out and make that connection.

On our last night in Tortuguero, we went out to the nicest restaurant in town. That was some of the best pizza I have ever eaten. When we got back to the research station, the research assistants were already out on their night shifts. Most of my trip mates went to sleep. My friend Hadley and I went to the dining hall to eat our last bowl of midnight cereal. Then she went back to our room, too.

I was the only one awake. I sat on the balcony outside our dorm room, reading a book and taking it all in. The air was heavy and humid and the night was beautiful. I stayed on the balcony until I heard the first shift coming back from the beach, laughing and talking about the turtles they had seen in a jumble of English and Spanish.

I was sad to leave this place that had taught me so much. We were going on to Drake Bay for another amazing week of snorkeling and exploring. Tortuguero was buggy and hot and we could not swim. It was far from perfect, but it was my paradise.

I may have left Tortuguero, but it has not left me. When I think back on the children in the school, the research assistants, the turtles’ tears, I know I will never travel again without reaching out. I have learned the power I have to make a change in the world and have the greatest experience of my life at the same time.