Episode Twenty Seven – How to volunteer in Costa Rica

“It’s Thursday, June thirtieth, twenty eleven” says the presenter of my favourite high-tech, low-brow podcast, in his normal tone. It’s almost as though today might as well be any other day. Isn’t it strange how different everyone’s perspectives are? He was probably thinking “It’s Thursday – almost the weekend”, or “We’re coming up to the 4th of July”. I’m sitting here in my big, empty white room (well, it would be empty if there weren’t three clothes driers airing out practically every garment I own); and to me, today is not ‘nearly the fourth of July’: it is my last day in Scotland. By the weekend I’ll have begun episode twenty eight of my life, and I’ll have begun it in Costa Rica.

What does Thursday, June 30th, 2011 mean to you? Are you looking forward to an upcoming event or holiday, or toiling to meet a deadline? Is it your birthday? (Happy 14th, Blake). Or is your friend, sister, daughter or niece leaving until Christmas? :P

This is how you would look if your family was leaving.

To me, it’s the end of another y-era. Or year-a, I still haven’t decided how that should be spelled. I think I’m finding it so difficult to look forward because it’s so tempting to look back. Why is that more enticing than beaches and volcanoes? Because I’m proud of myself and what I’ve achieved in recent weeks and months.

I haven’t begun working at my volunteer job yet, but it’s been working on me for a long time now. The independence, the uncertainty and self doubt, the adventure of this new y-era are already well underway. The ins and outs of the process I’ve been through thus far are not particularly prose-genic (?); and while I was trying to find my way through the rainforest of preparation, paperwork and one too many postal orders, there were times when I desperately wished there were a set of instructions to accompany this exciting new package I’d been waiting for since I first applied to the University of Edinburgh three years ago. So I’ve prepared these instructions in list form; a brief outline of what I’ve had to do in order to arrive where I am today, on the eve of my departure, feeling confident and prepared for the journey ahead of me. All this on the offchance that someone else from the UK is desperately searching for a set of instructions for how to spend time volunteering in Costa Rica. Obviously, these are my own experiences and who knows if others will have the same ones; but I imagine that, for now at least, these hoops will be the standard ones should you decide they’re worth jumping through.

[EDIT: Do not follow this advice. It has come to my attention since arriving in Costa Rica that there is no point in doing any of this (aside from Step 1), as it is a waste of time and money. I’ll post more about this later, and leave what’s here so you can all laugh at how much crap I went through, but don’t take it to heart.]

1. Choose a season – wet or dry. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Well, I chose July-December and am now expecting scattered thunderstorms as far as the eye can see.

2. Contact the Consulate of Costa Rica in London and ask for up-to-date information and assistance. They’re very helpful people and will be happy as Larry to lend a hand. They sent me a list of requirements not unlike this one, although theirs was quite unclear and not in chronological order like mine ;) They also included a list of NGOs which are approved to sponsor your visa application.

3. Contact the NGOs on the list, send CVs and cover letters in Spanish, and convince someone to let you work for them for free! I began by Skyping organisations, then quickly switched to email as my command of the language was unable to make up for my nerves, resulting in a complete failure to either speak or understand a word of spoken Spanish. Email is fine too though – that’s how I got my place with Mujeres Unidas en Salud y Desarrollo. They offered me not only a placement and sponsorship for a visa, but also a place with a Costa Rican family. That’s why the issue of finding housing is missing from this list – I have no experience there. But yeah, don’t forget to do that at some point…

4. Once you’ve found an organisation to support your visa application and you know you can afford this commitment, it’s probably safe to book your flights. Unless you have any criminal convictions, in which case I’d wait until after the next step. I booked flights arriving in July and leaving on the 14th of December, and they cost me somewhere in the region of £950. This is when you need to start getting vaccinated, too. You’ll be refused entry if you don’t have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, and remember that a course of rabies jabs takes four weeks. You’ll end up spending about £200 or so on vaccinations.

5. Apply for issue of a police certificate from the ACPO. Download the application form from the website and fill it out. Have passport photos taken and find someone to endorse them as part of the form, and send the whole thing off with two proofs of address, a copy of your passport, and payment (as of May, this was £35 for standard or £70 for premium service, plus postage).

6. Send your original birth certificate and police certificate to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for legalisation. This requires a completed application form (again available from the site) and payment of £30.00 per document (again, as of May).

7. Request a sponsorship letter from your NGO, making sure it contains all the necessary information. Contact the consulate for a guide to what the letter should look like.

8. You’re ready to get your provisional visa! Gather together your legalised birth and police certificates, your original passport and a postal order  (approximately £70), and send it off with a prepaid self-addressed envelope for return postage. Go with special delivery postage, because you don’t want these documents getting lost. You will receive your documents back, and your passport will be stamped with a provisional entry permit. A further document from the embassy will allow you entry into Costa Rica.

Smiles all around!

This is where I’m at right now. Now that the hard part’s over, start planning your leaving do! I invited my friends and family out to a delicious meal at Café Andaluz and an evening at The Rat Pack piano bar, which on a Saturday night was a little more clubby than I would have liked, but hey ho, I had a brilliant time catching up with old friends and cringing at my dad’s doughnut-or-a-meringue jokes. I made gift bags for my guests using crafty tutorials I found online, such as these and these bracelets, a variation of these hand-stitched teabags, cookies to use up the food left in my flat, and a mix CD including some of the music I’ve been listening to lately. In case you’re interested, that includes House of Heroes, Motion City Soundtrack, The Cure, The Hush Sound and Elvis Costello – all influences from either my dad or my boyfriend. Google them.

Remember Ted from Cincinnati? His girlfriend is studying in Edinburgh, and she came along to see me off!

Anyway, I don’t actually have my volunteer visa yet, but I can’t get that until I’m in the country; and I have everything I need to get to San José. I’ll need to get documents translated, register at the British embassy, join the social security scheme, have ‘certified copies’ made of my passport, and have my fingerprints taken. Then they’ll sell me a visa for 125 colones – approximately 17p! But I’m not thinking about that yet. I’m thinking about how proud I am of myself for getting it together and organising all this, pretty much single-handedly, although I’ve had some help along the way – especially with the costs, thanks to my generous and caring parents! I know how lucky I am to be able to afford to do this, and I won’t forget it. I know it will be a crazy-positive experience, and I already feel myself learning and growing, before I’ve even boarded the plane!

If there was ever a time when it was a good idea to subscribe to my blog posts, either by email or by RSS if you have a feedreader, it’s now! I’m ready for the adventure of a lifetime – packed, authorized and vaccinated up to the eyeballs. I’m going to be wandering around the jungle saying “Bite me!” to all the monkeys, and laughing in the faces of volcano craters – I’ve been injected with so many elixirs I’m pretty sure I’m invincible now.

So yes, I’ll try and post soon but even if I don’t, bear with me because it will be worth it! I repeat: sign up for notifications and you won’t miss a minute of it. That’s me out – wish me luck!

All the best,


P.S. I almost forgot! I wanted to share this artist with you. I saw some of her work in an Etsy newsletter and was blown away! She makes beautiful things out of reused wrappers and things – I particularly love the lava swan and the one made from maps. So beautiful – and so, so creative! I can see a whole collection of these in my dining room one day…


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