An adventure worth sharing – a gap year in Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Posted on 3rd Aug 2017 in International Students

Elliott Levy, 21, writes about giving back on his gap year with Raleigh International in Nicaragua & Costa Rica. He is currently studying Film and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University...

After school I wanted to travel but also give back to the community at the same time. I was at the British School in Belgium when I found out about Raleigh International’s Expedition programme from some Dutch friends who had volunteer. They’d really enjoyed it, so I looked it up online to learn more. Getting to do three different projects on one programme immediately appealed to me and it soon became clear Raleigh was the logical choice for my gap year. I’d be living and working with rural communities and learning about the environment in national parks and building leadership skills. I’d also get the chance to do a once-in-a-lifetime adventure trek across the country.

With Raleigh I could pick from countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America. I chose Nicaragua & Costa Rica for my Expedition destination. Staying with a host family provided me with a good opportunity to continue learning Spanish and I was also interested by Costa Rica’s progressive stance on the environment.

The experience was magical. My favourite thing was doing the trek. Over 19 days we walked hundreds of kilometres seeing the beautiful scenery, and meeting local people along the way who would encourage us on our journey. Being outside and having to reckon with what was in front of us each day was a physical and mental challenge. It was a huge effort, but a collaborative one. When you’re walking with a team of 14 people you know that if you feel like giving up, they will all keep you going – that’s a powerful motivating force.

One day was very hot and we had a morning filled with hills to climb. The group was struggling. One of the Costa Rican volunteers got hold of some mangos from a local village and went around the group giving pieces to everyone for energy. Those small things mean so much when you’re so far from home comforts! He wasn’t just being generous, but also motivating the group. In moments like that you really learn to become more conscious of other people’s strengths and weaknesses. You see that different people will come to the fore when different problems are presented to a group. You also learn about your own strengths and weaknesses, so that when you can’t do something you know that you can ask for help.

As well as climbing hills, there were other kinds of steep learning curves. I went on the trip with so many assumptions about helping others in the community projects, but it’s a very humbling experience when you realise the limits of what you have to offer. In Nicaragua we were helping the village of La Fortuna to build eco-latrines. When we arrived my host family were using a hole in the ground with a brick seat in a metal shed with no roof. They’d dump ashes over the top, which would leak into the already lacking groundwater and poison it. The new eco-toilets would be beneficial in limiting disease from poor hygiene and polluted water, but they would also create fertilizer for crops. We worked side by side with local community members and I quickly realised that they were much more skilled than me at building. I found that I was more successful at hosting action days when we would find imaginative ways to talk to community members about basic sanitation and hygiene. It was an important step for me to understand the ways in which I can use my skills to help people in the future.

My time with Raleigh has definitely helped me become more environmentally active. Lots of people are environmentally conscious but we really saw the effects of climate change in Nicaragua and the importance of protecting the environment in Costa Rica. We learnt that despite the rapid climate changes that are happening, we can still have a positive impact in our day to day life - wherever we are in the world. Now I try to use less and recycle more. And I don’t think I would be composting now if I hadn’t been on Raleigh!

It’s been nearly two years since I volunteered with Raleigh. I’m now studying film at New York University and making documentaries. I look back on my Expedition and I can see how many of the things I learned there have really stayed with me. For example, the opportunity to engage with other people from all over the world, see different ways of living, and discover how different people are figuring out challenges in their lives gave me more understanding. I’m now more able to assess situations properly and respond to them. I’ve really noticed that I’m much more open to understanding why other people have different beliefs about how the world works.

Volunteering with Raleigh teaches you so much. The context is completely different to a classroom. You’re far from home, everything is new and exciting, you’re meeting new people from all over the world, and it’s kind of bewildering at times. But there’s so much energy and it’s definitely an adventure. If you’re thinking about a gap year, I would say go with Raleigh. You’ll have an incredible experience, meet amazing people, be part of a team and have the chance to do a huge variety of things that will have a great impact on your future!

If you want to discover what you’re made of on a Raleigh Expedition like Elliot, click here to learn more and apply.