Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Travel is Freedom, stories from Costa Rica and Philippines

I found a great opportunity and excuse to write out some of my inspirational travel stories when posted an open call for 111 inspirational and funny travel stories to be published in a single book.Wegetthere is an up-and-coming travel website that seeks to help travelers connect to share information and promotes responsible, meaningful traveling and tourism. In other words, give more than you take when you travel.

I procrastinated a bit like usual but finally came through and came up with two stories that came to my mind as really inspirational and truly memorable.

The first story I wrote happened when I took my first trip by bus to San Jose from Puntarenas, Costa Rica. I ended up in what everyone was telling me is the most dangerous barrio in San Jose! But due to a chance meeting with a stranger I found countless memories and ended up in what one could pretty much call a fantasy world.

The second story and the one I submitted because I have photos to go with it, I don't know what happened to all of the photos from that particular trip, is about my first Christmas in the Philippines back in 2009. I decided to give back in a big way and it is still my favorite and most memorable travel memory to date.

An Unexpected Detour

By Joshua Sterrett

     It was a humid, March evening as I sat waiting at the empty bus station in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. I was about ready to take my first trip alone outside of the city to San Jose armed with my suitcases full of clothing and everything else I thought I needed. The thing is, I was as nervous as a hatchling about ready to take its’ first step out of the nest because I was literally afraid of taking public transportation. You see, back home I had my own car, everybody did, and I never know the exact route a bus is going to take me. 

     As I sat there in anxious excitement a quaint, bespectacled woman and her daughter sat close by. I decided to strike up a conversation with the friendly looking lady and was surprised to find that she spoke English. Her name was Martha. Since I had arrived in January I was used to only hearing and speaking Spanish so it was a bit of a relief to be able to speak in English. So we sat there for the next thirty or forty minutes discussing about my experiences in Costa Rica thus far and my life back home. She was headed to a friend’s house for a party. I explained that I was traveling by bus for the first time and heading for San Jose, with the plan of staying at a hostel. 

      Every now and then I would ask the bus driver if I was at the correct place in San Jose. I suppose I must have been like the Simpsons’ kids when they’d continually ask “are we there yet” because once we were in San Jose he said “si” and I got off the bus. It was the same stop as Martha and her daughter. However, the place I got off at looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. Martha asked where I was going and I told her the address. She gave me a worried look as she told me I got off on the wrong stop and was far away from my destination. She informed me that I was in Barrio Cuba and it was not a safe place so she called her friend and asked if it was okay that I stay over. Little did I know this was going to be one of the craziest adventures yet in Costa Rica. She let me know that the house was an all-female house but luckily her friend gave permission to let me come along.

       As I walked the desolate streets, looking into the shadows and trying to carry my luggage in my arms rather than rolling it so I didn’t attract any unwanted attention from the inhabitants or anybody lurking in the shadows. What felt like an eternity but was just about a 3 minute walk I arrived at the end of a street with a dead end. Martha knocked on the door and my eyes went wide, mouth hanging slightly ajar as several young women in their pajamas looked out at me from within, smiles on all of their faces. Standing in the street dumbstruck I was led inside and got ready for bed. The house was cozy, two rooms with beds on the floor were where the girls were sleeping together, a kitchen was further down and then there was an open ground room beyond where they bathed by cold water. I would be sleeping on the couch in the living room. It would be my home for the next week and one of many experiences of ‘tico hospitality’ and my first ‘couchsurfing’ experience. 

      Mornings come early in this neighborhood as the women all got up and began preparing for a party. Martha explained that I was now a special guest to a double baby shower. Let me tell you, baby showers are a big thing in Costa Rica! As more and more women were arriving I was put to work as they explained that I must earn that couch I slept on. So I went shopping with Martha for ingredients at the bustling local marketplace where you could find a variety of odd trinkets, old things, and of course fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. I carried the vegetable laden bags for her and then we headed back to the house. In the house balloons were beginning to go up everywhere, reggaeton was playing on the stereo and feminine laughter and chatter was in the air. It was really a magical moment. 

       Next I was given the job of helping to create the appetizer. I would take the crust off of the bread and then cut it in half. I would fold the resulting triangles into each other to create a kind of pocket. Someone else would put some vegetable paste inside and then toast the bread. We made plates upon plates of this dish which turned out to be delicious. 

       By this time, word had gotten around the block that there was a special visitor, aka ‘a gringo’, visiting and all of the neighborhood children would come by and stand outside the door and windows peaking in. Eyleen, the daughter, is a bit of a party animal and on her cue she turned up the stereo putting on some reggaeton hits and all of the ladies began shaking their hips to the Latin beats. I had a video camera and had been capturing all of the moments from helping with the food preparation to the dancing but Eyleen suddenly called out for me and told me to get up and dance for them. I refused at first but she didn’t give me much choice, jokingly saying I was still earning my stay as she took my camera and I began dancing with the other guests and their children. 

      The rest of the week was spent walking the neighborhood with the family and going around San Jose. I will never forget the friendships or the warm hospitality of my Costa Rican hosts in Barrio Cuba. 


A Christmas To Remember

By Joshua Sterrett

      Leaving the chilly winter air of early December 2009 in South Korea to embark on my first trip to the sunny Philippines had me nearly jumping for joy and eager to take off the layers protecting me from Korea’s cold winter. I was headed to Davao City in Mindanao Philippines to visit my long time e-pen pal and friend. I just finished up my first contract working as a teacher in South Korea and was eager to see some more of the world with my newly earned savings. 

crazies on a plane
       I had been planning this trip for months and it was finally happening. I would be experiencing my first ‘sunny’ Christmas with my friend and her family and planned to couchsurf all across the Philippine Islands over the next two months. As I walked off the plane after having a hilarious time making faces and jokes with a fellow flier, I came to know how much Filipinos LOVE Christmas. In Davao, everything is decorated in lights or garland, red, blue, and green. You can’t escape. And why would you want to? People were just so happy!

        I was welcomed into my friend Joy’s home with open arms, as if I was part of the family. I’d watch Wowowee (a game show) every day and joke about whether the contestants were being over dramatic or not as they told their life stories just before they began to bump and grind like crazy as soon as the music came on and even got caught up in the Big Brother craze that had so many pinoys glued to their televisions. I learned to take a bath with a barrel of cold water that has a hose feeding fresh water into it and a scoop. I even began learning some of the language.

       However there was one thing I really wanted to do that I wasn’t doing. All around me I saw poverty and it was commonplace to have children chasing me everywhere I went or a homeless mother with both breasts exposed feeding her child with dry nipples. I didn’t want to be just another traveler and even before I left Korea I had a plan to do something special for Christmas. For so many years I’ve always been the one to receive gifts and expect things but now that I had the financial means I really wanted to organize something and give to someone that I never expect receiving anything back from except a smile. 

       My original plan was to do a food tent in Davao on Christmas Eve, contacting the local parishes and seeing if I could get some sponsors for food and a place to accept the many people that may come. I soon came to realize it’s not such an easy task that can be done within a month’s time. 

        I had almost all but given up on the idea of doing something great for the needy of Davao when my friend Joy told me about a family friend who generally gives charity to her hometown in the mountainous region of Matanao, Northeast of Davao. This was a business woman who provides some care packages each Christmas to the most needy families. Once introduced we came up with a plan where I would take care of ordering the catering to provide hot meals for all the children in the village and she would match whatever money I put down for care packages and also obtain the trucks needed to carry all of the food and containers. Joy and I thought it’d be really great if we could also wrap some toys and put them in a bag like Santa Clause so we went to the dollar store and began picking out all sorts of toys that kids would enjoy playing with. We bought ourselves some Santa hats and wrapping paper to complete the package. Everything was going as planned. 

        A Pinoy Christmas is a bit different than one in the USA. Street and neighborhood children go up and down caroling in order to receive money and treats during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Barangays or districts set up Christmas pageants where all the families get involved performing dances and singing songs. And on Christmas Eve there is no sleeping. As soon as the clock strikes midnight dancing erupts, drinks are poured, and wrapping paper hits the air. It’s a festive event like no other.

        But it was nothing compared to what was waiting for us in Matanao. When we arrived at the school grounds we found 250 children and mothers waiting for to put on a show for us, the honorary guests to their barangay and Christmas show. 


        Usually these children are lucky to get some rice and perhaps a bit of cold meat for their Christmas meal. It was so great watching their smiling eyes as they eagerly ate up the food and began to watch the show. The show was the highlight of my trip. They prepared it especially for this event and it included storytelling, traditional dances where one young girl purchased beads just for the occasion, English quizzes (for the gifts), and finally I came up on stage to join a group of girls dancing to the popular Korean song “Nobody Nobody” by the Wonder Girls. The crowd of children went wild. 

         After giving away all of the gifts to the winners of the quizzes and the performers it was time to rest and laugh. There were filled tummy’s and smiles everywhere. I was invited to the principals home for some food and drinks and as we were given a lift to the house several kilometers down the road all of the children came running after the truck waving and laughing. From that point on I was surrounded by children until I left. It’s a place I can now call a second home, a place that I’ve come to love due to the people’s warm hearts and gracious attitudes in the face of hardship and the beautiful landscape that they themselves call home.

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