My wife, Karen, and I stand sweating in a stuffy classroom, ready to help teach English. We’re in Costa Rica on a volunteer vacation through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), a nonprofit working in 12 countries. Giggling third graders fidget behind long desks, but there’s no sign of the teacher we’re here to assist. Karen and I assume we’ll be English aides: the Ed and Doc to the teacher’s Carson, showing off our mastery of the language. And we’re happy to do it! Coming here makes us good people! I’m sure the kids can feel our do-gooder glow.
I stand by the room’s open door and glance outside: a warm breeze blows palm trees and fruit trees and thick grass. Viria Solis, CCS’s program director, introduces us to the students, and it’s then we make a gut-churning discovery. We’re not here to assist a teacher. We are the teachers. Me and Karen. Two amateur educators with zero experience whose Spanish is no bueno. The kids pull pencils and paper from their backpacks, eagerly awaiting their first lesson, and I’m struck by a terrifying epiphany: that what seems like a good idea when you’re feeling noble at home in your La-Z-Boy is much more daunting when you’re neck-deep in a different culture and you realize you’ve never taught anyone anything and now you’ll be teaching English to kids who don’t speak English.
Not only are we here by choice, but we’ve paid almost $2,500 each for the privilege. We’re among the many Americans who are trading sightseeing for service, and immersing themselves in a country and its people. “Most people who come here never see the real country,” says Jose Ugalde, CCS’s country director. “They arrive, they get on an air-conditioned bus, they go to an air-conditioned resort.”
Not us. We will sweat like locals, eat like locals, and—the big goal—try to do something meaningful.
Why people decide to spend their precious free time volunteering in muggy Central America is a frequent conversation starter at the dormlike CCS home base. That’s because a volunteer vacation is not your usual let’s-call-room-service type of trip. Karen and I are sleeping on bunk beds in a closet-size room, washing our dishes after meals, waiting in line to use bathrooms, even forgoing an evening beer (alcohol is forbidden—CCS doesn’t want its image tarnished by drunken volunteers). So everyone has a backstory. Cherie, a Spanish teacher from New Jersey, is here because she just turned 40. “It was the antidote to self-pity,” she says. Peter, 47, recently left the London bank where he’d worked for 28 years. “I wanted to confront myself about what matters to me in life,” says Peter, who’s volunteering for 12 weeks. “You only know about yourself when you face the unknown.” It’s a common theme among many older volunteers. The college kids are here because they’re idealistic and earnest; the boomer types are examining their lives.
I’m here because my father died almost a year earlier, a heart attack stealing his life on the golf course.
I’m here because I’ve been generously granted a sabbatical from my employer, and I feel I should do something significant with the time.
Mainly, though, I’m here because Karen and I don’t have children of our own. And the older I get, the more it seems it will never happen. That I will never hold a son, never comfort a daughter, never hear the word Dad. And it eats at me.
I’ve told Karen it’s not too late for us. We’ll adopt. I say we’re cheating ourselves out of the central experience in life. “I just don’t have maternal feelings,” she says one night, and I have no response.
She feels guilty. We both feel selfish. But I love this woman, deeply. She’s a nurse practitioner who has worked in pediatrics, and I can’t help but wonder: Has she heard too many screaming kids? Has she seen too many children hurting and sick?
I don’t know the answer. But I need a cure of my own, and I finally decide: the best option, perhaps the only option, is to try and help someone else’s child. And, now, in the first small test of this grand notion, we write our names in large letters on the chalkboard, and students gaze at us with tiny, curious eyes.