April 15, 2010

Crossing Borders by Erica Bleicher

Guest Post by Erica Bleicher
Undergraduate Student
Submitted as part of the 2010 Crossing Borders Writing Competition

My International Experience

It was a beautiful morning, with an abundance of sun and a wistful breeze. Patients were wrapped around the makeshift church clinic waiting to be treated. With only one doctor and enough student volunteers for two clinic groups, the line seemed stagnant. As morning turned to afternoon we were nearing the end of our work day - only a few patients left to be treated. Of the remaining patients, one an older woman. When her name was called she stood up with help from those sitting next to her and wobbled in clear pain to where my group members and I were set up. When she finally joined us and sat down, we went through the initial dialog when seeing a patient. When asking if she was taking any current medications, she replied "no"...because the National Costa Rican health care system does not cover many illnesses, and she couldn't afford the private insurance that would provide her with proper coverage. We then began taking her vital signs, weight, and height so the doctor would have more information for a diagnosis.

When we finally asked the main purpose of her visit, the woman sighed and replied in Spanish, "I have a swollen ankle and knee that has disabled me from walking, diabetes, declining vision in both eyes, plus I have been sick to stomach, and I have terrible cough." We had heard these symptoms separately from patients throughout in the day, but no one with the amount of complaints as this woman. There was a moment of shock before anyone said anything. Then my group member Matt blurted, "Well how are you doing?" In response, the woman looked up to us with a smile on her face, shrugged her shoulder and replied, "Pura Vida."

Pura vida is a Costa Rican saying that translates to "pure life", but the meaning is closer to "full of life." It is also commonly used as "this is living," "going great," and "cool." It is often used as a greeting, during goodbyes, to express satisfaction, or to politely express indifference when describing something. However, Costa Ricans use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike. It was inspirational to hear this woman respond to our question of her degenerating current physical condition with Pura Vida. This woman, as well as many other Costa Ricans, look at life in such a unique way. Pura Vida is truly a lifestyle that should be shared and experienced. It was motivating to see that without proper health care and a life of borderline poverty this woman was still able to hold her head high and be happy. Enjoying life with good spirits even in bad conditions is a trait that Costa Rica is known for, and without spending time in the country I would never have gotten a chance to learn such an exceptional view of life from such amazing people.

My international experiences have affected my view of the world in such a momentous way. Volutneering for Banrock Wetlands Center in Australia was my first taste of traveling abroad. I met such fascinating people: those who dedicated their lives to preserving the land so that the whole country can continue to benefit from the natural ecosystem. Grasping that these were people battling for the environment, doing so much work for very little pay, was inspiring. Volunteering in Costa Rica and Nicaragua humbled me and made me know only thankful for how lukcy I was to grow up in the setting that I did, but also taught me how much more there is to life than what I have experienced in my 20 years. I met people who have lived happy lives under conditions thta were previously unimaginable to me. This amazed me! Seeing the strength of these people was life changing. In addition their intelligence and insight was a gift to be able to experience. Being around their lifestyle made me rethink the way I chose to look at situations. I hope to take with me the philosophy of Pura Vida and try to incorporate it into my life as much as possible.

I feel as though each person I have met has made me a better individual and has challenged me to question what I know. My experiences abroad have taught me more than just different cultures, they have taught independence, new values, and most importantly, I have learned about myself. Traveling has provided me with invaluable opportunities that will further my education and knowledge of the world. I believe it is each individual's responsibility, if possible, to travel abroad so that they too will be out of their element, and once this happens it is inevitable to begin to see things differently and absorb new cultures. My international experiences have made me realize how big this world is! There is so much more to life than I had ever imagined. Traveling to see what else is out there and the amount of variety available to experience is such an incredible opportunity that I hope to continue to take advantage of throughout my future.

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