I was dazed and confused at this point because the organization told me that one of their staff was going to pick me up and this man didn’t speak a word of English. Do I get into the car with this man? Is this a kidnapping scheme? Do I trust this man to bring me to the right hostel?
This is what I was thinking about when Manuel said “Ok, I’m going with you.”
Off we went in the taxi, driving through the streets of San Jose. As I sat in the backseat, I looked out the window and saw that the sky was pitch black and there were lots of cars on the road. It was apparent that there were different or no driving rules here and the fast changing of lanes without blinkers occurred often.
Costa Rica seemed like a busy place but I couldn’t get a sense for it because it was dark and I was too nervous to enjoy it yet. Manuel sat in the passenger seat and talked to the taxi driver the whole way to the hostel.
Listening to their conversation and trying to understand what they were saying became unsuccessful while thoughts of being kidnapped in a foreign country re-entered my mind. I felt alone in the backseat. The only person who knew me in Costa Rica by name so far was Manuel.
I met Manuel on the plane to San Jose, Costa Rica. I was beginning a month-long volunteer trip to join a teaching group in Quepos, Costa Rica that offered free English classes to people of all ages through an international volunteer organization called GVI. It was my first time going out of the country and flying alone.
My mind bounced back to the Los Angeles International Airport when I was asked three separate times by airport staff who seemed skeptical or worried that I was traveling alone.
I’m very non-confrontational and soft spoken. I know if someone really wanted to, they could take me. I became briefly sad as I thought about the reality of women across the globe who have felt this fear the way I was feeling in that 10 minute taxi ride.
Thoughts of immigrants came to mind. I thought of my short experience of feeling jumpy in a foreign country and felt as if I got a taste of what it must be like for immigrants everyday in the U.S. I felt a wave of empathy for them.
From the time we were on the plane, to the time we left the airport together to go to the hostel where I was staying, Manuel looked out for me. Why he showed great kindness and protection toward me, a complete stranger and welcomed me into Costa Rica with open arms is unknown. But a big part of me believes Manuel was a vessel in God’s elaborate, detailed plan during this trip.
Manuel had salt and pepper hair and black framed glasses. It seemed that he could chat about anything, which put me at ease about being on a plane full of strangers headed to a foreign country alone. I pulled out my small notebook of basic Spanish terms and phrases I had written down for future reference in order to get by in Costa Rica without sounding like a complete American.
“Tell me what you wrote,” he said.
We went over greetings and small conversational phrases such as “¿Cómo estas?”
“Costa Ricans use ‘pura vida’ for everything. It’s hello, it’s goodbye, it’s a state of being—it’s everything,” Manuel said.
Long before the trip, I was approached in person by Gabrielle, the director of the Guardian Scholars program at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. The program helps former foster youth achieve whatever it is they want to.
I was in this program during my time there and built a close relationship with Gabrielle and the staff because they cared more about my education and well-being more than any adult in my life had before. Gabrielle asked me if I’d be interested in going on a humanitarian volunteer trip.
An older, Christian man named Randy Paul contacted her about wanting to start a nonprofit that funds and sends former foster youth currently enrolled in community college to a country and volunteer project of their choice.
Randy also happens to be the name of my biological father and Paul is the name of my biological great grandfather. I thought to myself it could be a weird coincidence that the man who is granting me a wish has the same names as my biological father and great grandfather but I like to believe God planned that one out too.
I said yes immediately, she gave me the details and I jumped through the necessary hoops. Months later I found myself in Costa Rica talking to Manuel outside a hostel.
The car came to a stop. We were at the hostel. It was small and looked decent. There were signs of other people there. I felt relieved.
Manuel and I got out of the taxi and he helped me with my luggage. He asked me if I was good to go and I said yes and thanked him for everything. He told me that if I have a day off from volunteer work that I could visit him and his wife in San Jose.
We stood on the sidewalk in front of the hostel and it felt like the moment where you embrace an old friend when going separate ways. Except I had known him for maybe six hours.
He gestured with his two hands the way people do when they offer you a hug and I leaned in to give him a hug goodbye.
“Pura vida,” I said to him as I turned to walk through the doors of the hostel.
By: Ashlee Owings