During our pre-departure meeting, our Director of Programs of Program Management Laragh Kavanaugh warned parents: “Travel is inherently stressful. But traveling during a pandemic is another level of stress.” For our 24 High School Away Block I participants, Sunday night was full of packing, checking off to-do lists, and nerves. There was the negative Covid-19 test that had to be uploaded prior to departure; the Costa Rican health pass QR code, that had to be printed; and the proof of insurance, which Costa Rica recently required for all travelers entering the country. Preparing to travel during Covid-19 means never getting your hopes up too high, because countries can change entry requirements with little notice. Many participants didn’t dare let themselves get excited, for fear that at the last minute, some change would prevent them from actually getting to spend 4 weeks in the Cloud Forest with CIEE.
And yet, on Monday, Jan. 18th, we all departed from various locations around the U.S. to arrive in San Jose airport, safely and on time. Many students navigated immigration on their own, communicating with the Costa Rican staff through WhatsApp as they made their way off the plane. After presenting their health insurance, health pass, and customs form, they were all cleared for entry and were picked up by our staff right outside of baggage claim. In 2 separate vans, we were transported to an outdoor restaurant, where students were able to eat after a long journey. Many of our California students flew overnight to arrive in San Jose, while one student from New Mexico flew across the country to Charlotte to join the group to fly to Costa Rica. With masks and hand sanitizer, the students waved hello excitedly as they met each other for the first time. For our returning students, it was a chance to reunite after being apart for the holidays. While socially distancing, the students mingled and asked each other the common questions – where are you from, what grade are you in – and remarked that they would never be able to remember so many names. However, by the end of lunch, some students were able to name off their table, joking that they’d have to relearn everyone when we could take off our masks after our quarantine ended.
After lunch, students boarded 3 private vans and began the journey to Monteverde. The ride can take anywhere from 2.5-4 hours depending on traffic, and many students promptly fell asleep. For those that stayed awake, they were treated to views of the Costa Rican landscape, which changes quickly. As we left San Jose, we drove towards the Pacific Ocean, passing Caldera beaches in Puntarenas Province and then ascending the mountains of Monteverde. As we wound our way on a dirt road, students were treated to their first sunset of red, orange, pink, and purple.
Upon arrival in Monteverde, students were shown their rooms and then given a short orientation to dining hall procedures before dinner. As part of Covid-19 safety precautions, students must place their phones on a table outside the dining hall and wash their hands at the sink before entering. They aren’t allowed to serve themselves, they must stay 6 feet apart and follow the arrows on the floor to only go in one direction, and masks are only taken off when eating. Tables are spread out throughout the dining hall, with assigned seats that are spaced out. The lack of technology and the mixing of students has led to meals being a time to bond with new friends. Returning students sit with new students to share advice about what to expect while on program. When students finish eating, they clear their plates and put all leftovers in a bowl, since the Global Institute is a sustainable campus and nothing goes to waste. After clearing plates, students exit the dining hall and go directly to the hand washing station before they can retrieve their phones. Overall, the group has done a great job maintaining the Covid-19 precautions as we form our bubble. Even with their masks and distance, bonds have already formed among the group. In our first few days, we have been able to partake in some safe outdoor activities, like hiking up to El Nino to see the chickens and watch the rainy sunset. Each night, students have gathered in the open-air rec room to watch a movie (The Conjuring 2, which has been keeping me up at night) and play ice breakers. One involved explaining how what you are wearing represents something important about you. We were treated to stories about how special socks, necklaces, and passed-down sweatshirts embody the different participants’ personalities.
Overall, in just a few days, despite Covid-19 precautions and the many factors that could have prevented students from arriving, we are settling in well in our new home. The common sentiment among the students is wonder: wonder at being able to spend time with students their age after so many months of quarantine; wonder at their new commute to school, which involves lush forest and animals; wonder at all we have yet to experience.