So what’s the deal?
This week was unusual because it would culminate in a dramatic regional soccer meet followed by an impressive post-game party to be held in Buena Vista, a small town located about a 10 minute drive from Samara. Having been victorious in the past, the boys and girls soccer teams of El Torito and Samara (the two schools joined forces in order to make the full complement required for a soccer team) were now entering round 2 of the tournament. This was going to be very challenging because not only had the best teams advanced, but they all (in theory) learned from their mistakes from the first round. Although the vista was as sweet as it could get with the lush green soccer pitch surrounded by impressive trees of the tropics (I could definitely see how this community got its name) – this was going to be far from a walk in the park.
The day started early in El Torito school where the kids energy seemed to outpace that of the adults. Granted, this was an exciting day for the children and a day like this doesn’t happen too often; but the ‘grown-ups’ had yet to have any of the famous Costa Rican coffee. The amazingly gracious chef of the school kindly produced what seemed to be a bottomless pot of local java – sip sip sip followed by a gulp or two – and I was ready to roll, Tico-style!
We piled the players, the uniforms and even the day’s food into the only form of transportation this school knows when it comes to getting around on game day, a taxi-van (with off-road capability; trust me, you’d need it), and we were off! If you had been from another school your transport of choice may have been a vegetable truck, a dump truck, a tractor and trailer or if you were really lucky, a normal bus with seats and everything! But here we were, in a taxi-van and as close we could get to luxury – I was more than comfortable. As we drove I had my mind on the game, maybe some warm-up drills I wanted to put the kids through and that amazing buzz that Tico coffee seems to give you each and every time. When I looked behind me from the passenger seat, however, I noticed that the kids were not so much focused on the game as they were on sticking fingers in each other’s ears, arm wrestling, talking about newly developing romances in the school, and just giggling away. I took the hint and reached right in and accepted my first arm wrestling match. I’m proud to say that this 29 year old came out winning 2 out of 3 challenges in that van with kids ranging 9 to 11 years old! That was definitely something to write home about. Even though I got more fingers in my ear than I’d care to think about, I like to focus on my proud moments you know?
Upon arriving in Buena Vista I immediately appreciated the simplicity of its design. Dominating the pueblo was exactly what we were here for – one soccer pitch. Surrounding the soccer pitch were a few houses, a community hall, a church and a modest school, all the necessities required of any Costa Rican community! Within minutes of our arrival, members of the pueblo had set up heavy operations serving arroz con pollo and pop with all the colors of the rainbow out of the community hall. I’d just eaten breakfast and my mouth was already watering. There was, however, one additional perk to having this match in Buena Vista – the director to El Torito school lived here and it was her house that was the center of much of the action that day. Plus, with all the coffee and pop I was drinking, I can’t begin to describe how good it felt to have such easy access to a washroom!
The girl’s team was up first. As they headed off to the director’s house to change into their uniforms I spoke with the teams coach about the types of warm-ups and drills I could put them through. We seemed to be on the same page with everything. “Just don’t tire them out,” he said with a grin. “Of coarse,” I replied (I had a tendency to ‘overwork’ them before a game. I just love running with them!). We gathered at the back of the community hall tightening up laces, strapping on shin guards, and again sticking fingers in each others ears. And then it was time! We streamed out of the community hall, single file…just how I like it. It was so impressive that we definitely commanded the attention of almost everyone around the soccer pitch. As we rounded our last corner we set up in a semi-circle and began our stretches. Lower body, upper body, jumping jacks, push-ups; it was all there! But I always like to finish with some wind-sprints. I like to think of it as icing on the cake, or saving the best for last; the coach would disagree but with all the giggling going on I couldn’t possibly have tired them out. When we stopped I think I had a moment. Not a soccer moment, something else. I couldn’t really describe to you what kind of moment it was, only that it probably lasted about 1 or 2 seconds but seemed like several minutes. It was like in the movies when everything around you goes slow motion except you. If you would have told me a year ago that next year I would be leading a team of soccer players out into a field in front of hundreds of people in a beautiful small town that’s not even on the map in Costa Rica, I would have thought you were crazy. Maybe it was a moment of zen, if I knew even what that was. Or maybe it was the Tico coffee; but I felt I was home. I felt I was surrounded by family. I felt that when I left, people were really going to miss me. I felt I was really making a difference. I felt absolutely amazing. This was surreal. I would never forget this experience. And then the whistle blew. Game on.
The girls took to the field hard and never lost their intensity. There was no mistake that soccer was in these people’s genes. Not only did their culture heavily depend on this sport but I think their very identity as well. I knew that all along, but only now did I actually witness it and feel it. A strong offense coupled with a strong defense made for a superior team and that’s exactly what we produced. 6 – 0 was the final score. Another victory for El Torito/Samara! Both teams played well, but it was my girls that were coming home with the win and moving on to round 3! They then retired to the director’s house for pop and arroz con pollo – a well-deserved treat. I hung out for a while congratulating them and making sure they drank their fluids you know, doing the coach/parent thing and then returned to the field to get the boys prepared for their match. The day wasn’t over yet.
Most of the boys team was made up of students from Samara school. This was awesome because it gave me a great opportunity to get to know even more kids that lived in the Samara-Matapalo-El Torito area (My project placement is mainly out of El Torito school). It extended, by about 4 or 5 big city blocks, the area in which I can walk around town and still have kids call out my name and wave hello! There’s no feeling quite like it. We volunteers have such a sense of presence – the community definitely knows we’re here and working for them!’But I digress, back to the game’
I started the boys warm-up in the same manner. Maybe my pace was a little faster, my stretches a little longer, and my yelling a little louder but they kept up and still managed to bring that element of schoolyard playfulness onto this field. I was okay with that and took it as a learning opportunity – we adults place so much pressure on everything we do – these kids managed to effectively balance the importance of the soccer meet with the carefree attitude of children that just want to have fun – at all levels. It was then time to huddle, pray, and take our positions. Put your game faces on!
With one whistle the game started and the crowds were cheering. The boys battled hard, with a friendly-ferocity if that makes any sense. It was difficult to tell which side of the soccer pitch was rooting for which team. If it was worthy of being cheered for, it was, regardless of the team involved. My focus was entirely on the game when at about half time I felt spit or a trickle of water on my face. The coach was a good 5 paces from me so it wasn’t from his yelling (the situation was slightly different several minutes ago!). Soon another drop, then another, then we all heard that unmistakable sound that is so common to any “Sounds of the Rainforest” CD – the rain smothered the trees, the buildings and the entire pueblo. It was pouring, and pouring hard! Much of the crowd quickly seeked shelter (more arroz con pollo anyone?), but the game wasn’t phased a bit. It persisted with the same intensity that there was before the rain and the coaching staff, including myself did the only honorable thing – stay out there and tough it out with the kids. The rain lasted all of the 2nd half, and when it left it did so just as quickly as it had come. Now, the game was also over, and our boys lost 3 – 1. It was a great game and the effort was top-notch all around. Nevertheless, we were still immensely proud that Samara/El Torito would be represented in the next set of matches. It was time to recover.
The kids headed back to the director’s house to change and grab some food. It was time for them to go home. As for their plans it was a Friday, which meant the weekend was coming up. The possibilities were literally infinite. The adults, however, knew their plans and I was ready to take it all in! The ‘grown-ups’ (including all the teachers at El Torito, myself and other uVolunteers) would stay behind and enjoy a wonderful BBQ with chicken, pork and beef along with beer, wine and what seemed like an endless supply of snacks and munchies. The director grabbed at the opportunity to host such a wonderful event the moment she knew a large regional soccer meet would be held basically in her front yard! They were amazing hosts! We were all catered to in every way imaginable and it was great to finally hang-out and chat with the teachers in a context outside of school. It’s amazing how much more you can learn about a person when you don’t have an 8 year old hanging off your leg or left shoulder!
Shortly after dinner (but before the guitar was hauled out for some great tunes!) we were all called to the dining area the director wanted to make an announcement. She began by thanking everyone for coming out and said how happy she was that they managed to cease an excellent opportunity to have a little fiesta after such a big event in her little community. She then pulled out a box and looked at me. The topic quickly turned to uVolunteer. She expressed great thanks at all the help this volunteer organization had contributed to her school, that uVolunteer had played a part in changing the face of her school, and looked forward to a long-lasting and mutual relationship with uVolunteer! I mean, when I go into that school and do my work and play with the kids.I just don’t look at things at such a grand scale! Maybe it’s the English classes I hold every weekday at that school, or the physical education that the children would NEVER get if it wasn’t for uVolunteer (they don’t have a physical education teacher), or maybe it’s that 8 year old hanging off my left shoulder; but I never stood back to think of the difference we were actually making the bigger picture. But when I heard those words coming from the director herself.I had another moment! I came here to make a difference and that’s exactly what was happening whether I’m conscious of it or not! People just know when uVolunteer is around! But anyways, back to the box. “We heard from a little bird that it was someone’s birthday,” she said. “Oh man!” I thought. “Happy birthday Mickey, from all of us at El Torito School, and thank you for all the work you do for every student there.” Inside that box was the tastiest looking cake I’ve seen in months! ‘Happy Birthday’ was then sung bilingually. I would have never expected this and I’m officially on the lookout for that little bird that likes to talk so much. “Watch your back little bird, watch your back!”
One of the instructors told me that it was a Costa Rican tradition to take a bite out of the whole cake directly with your mouth if any of your wishes were to come true. And any self-respecting human being would do anything in their power to ensure their wishes DO come true so I happily obliged. I don’t exactly remember what happened in that next millisecond or so but when I stood back up I had more cake in my nose, eyes, forehead and face then in my mouth! The entire room roared in laughter. I would have laughed too but, you know, that much cake in your nose makes it kind of difficult. He set me up! The Go-To teacher and my most trusted man at El Torito set me up and slammed my face into a cake! Either I’m not completely sold on Costa Rican traditions or you just can’t trust some Tico’s, I’m still trying to figure which one it is!