In the mountains of Costa Rica, the people in the rural village of Chinampas live in dire conditions unimaginable to the majority of students at Dartmouth. The locals live in a spread-out community along the side of a mountain. Until 2006, they lived without running water or electricity. Children walk in the fields and on the dirt roads with no shoes to protect their feet from tarantulas and scorpions. The closest healthcare facility is miles away, making immediate aid virtually impossible. Yet despite the absence of life’s basic amenities, the people of Chinampas do not struggle to find happiness.
In the summer of 2006, I joined a team of 15 students and traveled to Chinampas with the hope of constructing a water system for the village. Previously, children walked over three miles up the mountain in order to collect fresh water in old soda bottles. However, they could never gather much water in just one trip. They had no other choice but to make the trip up the mountain several times a day to provide water for their families. I needed to make this trip twice each day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Each time, my team and I struggled to climb and carry our tools to reach our work site. It was unbelievable that children half my age had to make this trip multiple times a day. In addition, making multiple trips kept these children from being able to attend school. As a result, many families opted for an alternative; instead of gathering clean water, children gathered water from the closest water source, a source contaminated with animal feces and bacteria. They were forced to choose between their health and their education, a decision no human should ever have to make.
My team and I worked for three weeks, digging trenches and laying pipes in order to connect the fresh water source to a cistern in the center of the village. The task was difficult due to the daily downpours characteristic of the rainforest. Most days, we had to wait hours before we could resume our work, only to find that much of our progress had been destroyed as a result of shifts in the mud which caused the trenches we had already dug to fill up with clay. Various other factors inhibited our progress. The three-mile hike up the mountain that we completed twice a day had a physical toll on our bodies and took away valuable time that we could have spent working. Additionally, the lack of decent food and cold water (we had to boil all of our drinking water) combined with the inability to access showers made our task even more difficult.
We worked side by side with many of the locals, many of whom gladly spent their free time joining the effort to obtain a healthier, more accessible water source. One day while we were working in the forest, a man accidentally sliced his head open with a machete while clearing tree branches from our path. The cut was deep and bled profusely. Yet, medical care was miles away and there was no form of convenient transportation. The man had no choice but to walk over ten miles to reach the closest clinic in order to receive sutures. Surprisingly, he was working alongside us the next day, unable to spend time resting because he was determined to provide for his family and community.
Despite all of these hardships, however, it was rare to find someone with a frown on their face. The children appreciated what little they had, spending their free time playing on a dirt soccer field after school. Even though there was only one poorly constructed goal post on the field, the kids still enjoyed playing. Families spent a lot of time together, and most attended church 2-3 times a week. They rejoiced and thanked God for what they had, rather than dwelling on what they lacked. Their joy is so contagious that my team, struggling to adjust to an unknown lifestyle and culture, was able to smile even during the toughest of times.
The living conditions in Chinampas are extremely modest. Basic provisions that we take for granted on a daily basis are sparse. Yet the people still manage to find joy in their lives. They have a surprising appreciation for one another and the little that they do have. Their outlook on life is vastly different from ours. After spending just three weeks in their village, I had a greater appreciation for the simple things of life we often take for granted. Every time I take a sip of water, flip a light switch, take a shower and tie my shoes, it is hard to forget just how fortunate I am. I will never forget the people of Chinampas.