I have visited many countries in my lifetime, lived in a few for longer periods of time and been a classic tourist in others. What I have not done before is specifically traveled to a country to learn about the culture, values, government and educational systems and how the country functions as a whole. Being a social worker, I have come to Costa Rica to learn these things, but I’ve also come to help. It has been through this process of completing both these goals that I have found myself feeling uncomfortable in a way I have never felt when traveling. My privilege as a white person from the United States has never been so clear to me. It has been this privilege that has made we wonder if I am actually being helpful while learning or if I am actually utilizing this privilege in a way that is taking away the rights of the people who I am trying to help and learn from.
There have been a few instances during this trip when I have left my learning experience wondering how I was actually received by those I had been learning from. For example our group went to an impoverished area in San Jose called La Carpio. It is an area considered by those of San Jose to be very poor and dangerous. There is a volunteer organization located there to try to help those who live in this area. When we were trying to find this organization we stopped to ask the locals for directions. They responded with “oh, the place where all the gringos (white foreigners) go!” This got me to wondering how the locals actually feel about the gringos coming to help. Do they like that we are there and appreciate our help or do they feel that we are invading their home, coming to see how people live so differently than us, and are so unfortunate; basically like they are exotic animals in a zoo who we know exist and are curious to see? This thought that they could feel disrespected by us and not enjoy all of these strangers coming into their home to see how they live made me feel uncomfortable and desiring to leave.
Another instance in which I felt uncomfortable was when we visited the hospital. The administrator gave us a tour of the hospital to show us how well it works. During this tour he brought us into a room where patients were being worked on by dentists. We saw drilling and tooth removal. I felt horrible to be invading the privacy of these patients and guilty that because we wanted to learn this right was taken away from them. I just kept thinking that the only reason we were given this “privilege” of seeing this room of patients was because we were students from the United States and therefore the administrator believed that we were entitled to this experience.
Lastly, I wondered about how helpful we really were when we helped paint a school in a small town. This experience had been set up by the school we are attending here in Costa Rica and I couldn’t help but wonder about the process of setting it up. I wondered if our school called them and said that they had a group of social workers from the US who wanted to do some volunteer work, maybe we could paint the school or something? I then thought that the people from the town could have thought, “well we weren’t going to paint the school but since they are gringos and want to do it, we will help them.” We were scheduled 3 hours to do this task and during this time were only able to paint one of the two rooms, leaving the people from the town to finish the other room by the time the kids come to school on Monday (it was Saturday) and to clean up the paint, supplies, and to put all the furniture back into the rooms. Now I ask, was it actually helpful to them that we painted or did we actually create more work for them? Did our status as American students pressure them into accepting our “help?”
In summary, I am not trying to be pessimistic. We have learned a lot about Costa Rica during this trip. I do not know what the Costa Ricans have felt about our presence, but what I keep wondering is if in learning we are doing the opposite of what we strive to do as social workers and taking away others rights instead of supporting them. Is what we are doing for our benefit or theirs?