Avery Banghart spent 3.5 months abroad volunteering and taking Spanish lessons in Costa Rica and Peru with her best friend. At just 17 years old, Avery went from family vacations to venturing solo, communicating with locals in a foreign language, and sharing a dorm with 4 strangers she would make lifelong friends of. Here’s her story:
On Latin America and Learning Spanish
Any reason you chose to enroll in Latin America?
I chose Latin America because it felt like that is where I could make the most impact and it felt somewhat closer to home, not halfway across the world. I also chose it because Spanish is the main language and I had taken Spanish in high school.
What was your Spanish level when you arrived?
I had taken 3 years of basic Spanish classes in high school but remembered very little. After taking classes in both Peru and Costa Rica, I left being an Intermediate II level-speaker. I feel confident enough to be able to travel by myself and say exactly what I want to in Spanish.
How long were your classes and how many times per week?
I took group courses for 2 hours a day, 5 days a week
Did you realize any differences between the Spanish spoken in Costa Rica v. Peru?
Yes. The basic Spanish is the same of course but there are differences in what word is the “norm” to use for the same thing in different countries. For example, the standard “tu” meaning you (like you would refer to a friend), should be “usted” in Costa Rica. It was actually very interesting to learn how language changes based on borders.
On Volunteering Abroad
Let’s talk about teaching English…
Well, the mini-lesson we had to do before the program actually made me feel incredibly anxious, but when I got there, I realized the students had all had chosen to be there so, it wasn’t hard to engage. We asked them what they wanted to learn and planned our lessons around that. There was definitely a learning curve. You could tell they were going home and practicing, and showing up to prove to us that they understood. It was easier than I expected because I had anticipated the worst.
But it was a super impactful project because it’s a volunteer-based program. The students wouldn’t have had any teachers if we weren’t there and they wanted to learn so badly.
What about your experience with sea turtle conservation?
The most surprising thing to me about this project was probably the people that worked at the refuge. It wasn’t just their job. These people worked because they cared so much. It was amazing to see the passion at this project.
Not only did we feel like we were making a difference for the turtles but we felt like we were relieving some of the full time workers from all their duties so that they could have a little more down time and we could do what we were there to do.
And you also said healthcare was really impactful. Why?
We were assigned to work at a nursing home. There were only 2 nurses assigned to 24 residents so we felt like no matter what we were doing, they really needed the extra hands on board.
What are some striking differences you noticed about healthcare in Costa Rica v. healthcare back home?
In terms of nursing homes, the one in Costa Rica felt a lot less personal. It was a clean, brand new facility and the nurses did a great job, but it wasn’t like the cozy ones you see in the U.S. Things like air conditioning and heating were not available which was weird to me seeing as old people can’t regulate heat as well. I think we were lucky to see a very good side of healthcare in Costa Rica and still able to make an impact.
Did you experience any difficulties while volunteering?
I’ve experienced stress in volunteer situations both in Colorado and abroad. I think sometimes it is uncomfortable to put yourself in a situation with people you don’t know. The initial introduction can be hard for me. I wouldn’t say I felt stressed but I would say it’s more of an awkwardness. Something I struggle with internally is creating an equal connection and not a relationship that says “I am more privileged than you, therefore I am better and I can help you”. I think it’s an internal struggle for me sometimes that I don’t want to come off “superior” to those I am helping. I think the best way to handle it is to push through because there is always a barrier that you can break where it becomes more comfortable. And I think that comes with time and not giving up.
On Living Abroad
What were your accommodations like?
My best friend and I shared a room with two twins beds at each house. We stood with 3 different host families during our trip; all three were single women and their dogs. For the most part, we felt comfortable and safe. The food was always really good, with the occasional culture shock. Sometimes we were served something we couldn’t readily identify, but overall we really lucked out with our host families.
During the sea turtle conservation project, our accommodations were dorm-style living; with six people to a room, three bunk beds, two toilets and two showers. We were also served 3 meals a day in a communal kitchen that we shared with the guards of the refuge. It was definitely weird to adjust to but it was a good part of the experience, too.
What did you do on your time off?
A lot of time was spent exploring and trying to make it to as many sights as possible in one day but we also needed downtime.
In Peru, Machu Picchu was the only guided tour we did. We did a lot of exploring in San Pedro and visited tons of markets. For us, it wasn’t as much about the touristy sites but we wanted to immerse ourselves in seeing day to day life. So, we walked 7 miles some days just wandering streets and finding places to eat. Seeing the “wonders” of the streets instead of the must see sights was important for us.
In Costa Rica, we only chose to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. The guided tours filled with U.S tourists weren’t as appealing and we got to see some hidden gems that would never be classified as adventure. I loved the way we did it because it provided a more authentic experience for us. This wasn’t a vacation intended trip for me, it was more of a cultural immersion trip.
What was one of your favorite adventures/excursions/experiences?
One of my favorite days on my trip was our day in Manuel Antonio National Park. We got to see so many animals and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to. Not only that, I even had a monkey give me a kiss on the cheek and then pull my hair. It is a day I will never forget.
What will you miss most?
I think the thing I will miss the most is the stress-free feeling. I’ve never really traveled without my family and I thought it would be hard, but I soon learned that the sense of personal responsibility and freedom is something that calms me. Coming home made me feel a little trapped after having that.