Day 5: Learning From the Locals

By Madeline Thiara, Grade 10
This trip to Costa Rica has definitely been full of trying and experiencing new things. From making new friends and getting closer with old ones, to having casuals interactions with iguanas and jumping off waterfalls. It is amazing to spend time in such a special place and be able to spend some time with the people who are native to this country. Everyone here in Costa Rica have been so generous and kind to accept our large group into their home, especially our tour guides. They have been so insightful and helpful and have done their best to teach us about this beautiful place.

My favorite moment during this trip was definitely visiting the waterfall. Although it was hard for me to fully step out of my comfort zone and climb up the rocks with the water pounding down on me, once I got up and took the jump, it was amazing. On that same day, I was able to ride a horse for the first time. I was so afraid to get up on the saddle and start riding, but once I got on, I enjoyed every second. Before we wrap up this trip, I hope to reflect on all these great moments and remember how lucky we all are to be able to experience such a beautiful place. 

Day 4: The Lasting Impact of One Week in Costa Rica

By Alina Kushner, Grade 10 
The Costa Rica trip has been adventure-packed with excitement, opportunities to take risks and new friendships. The trip has forced me to put myself in new and uncomfortable situations. Back home in San Francisco, we are used to immediate comfort: technology at the snap of your fingers, snacks whenever you start to feel hungry and complete privacy. Costa Rica separates you from those factors that make life seem so simple, allowing you to open yourself to more possibilities and experiences without being distracted by these luxuries that people often take for granted. 

One of my favorite experiences on the trip has been the service trip to a local middle school. Being a French student, I was apprehensive about the service experience and was worried about my interaction with the children because of the language barrier. However, when I arrived at the school and began talking to the children, I noticed that the language barrier began to disappear, and I was able to get to know kids who have such a different life from me on a personal level. 

Costa Rica has taught me that you can make the closest and most trustworthy friends in the most unexpected circumstances. This immersive trip gives you a safe space to take risks, to be yourself and open yourself up to new life-changing experiences. I truly feel that you don’t return to San Francisco as the same person who left after you experience Costa Rica with your sophomore class. 

Scroll to the bottom of this web story to browse through more photos from Day 4 .

Scroll to the bottom of this web story to browse through more photos from Day 4 .

Day 3: Students Reflect on an Adventure-Filled Day

By Joe Shea, Grade 10 
Greetings from Costa Rica! Today, along with the rest of the Ballena Group, I visited a small K–5 school about 35 minutes away from Villas Rio Mar (our hotel). I was able to practice my Spanish skills while playing with the children. We also improved their facade by painting a bridge that connects the two sides of their campus. As our time with the Costa Rican children ended, we handed out the toys and school supplies we brought with us. Not only did this make me realize how gifted we are to attend such an amazing school, but the joyous nature of the children showed me how positive you can make a situation that is not exactly ideal.

By Alia Mogannam, Grade 10
So far, the Costa Rica trip has been amazing! Yesterday my group went horseback riding through the rainforest to a hidden waterfall. The horse riding was super fun even though  I was nervous at first because I do not have a lot of experience with horses, but I was very comfortable by the end. Once we made it to the waterfall we got to swim, climb up the side of the waterfall and jump off from 25 feet up. I am personally not very afraid of heights but a few of my group members were, and it was really nice to see everyone encouraging them and being supportive. The food has been amazing too, and we have done a lot of salsa dancing. There were apparently two earthquakes in the middle of the night and I was a little disappointed that I didn’t feel them. However, it was nice to have a little touch of San Francisco down here. Today I did service at a school in the town. The kids were so sweet and were very kind about my lack of Spanish skills, so we had a really good time and broke down the language barrier pretty well. Tomorrow I go zip lining and snorkeling which I am excited for! I have heard friends that went before me raving about it all. Even though I am homesick and miss my friends and family, I know I am going to miss Costa Rica and all of these experiences the second we leave.

Day 2: A Memorable First Day of Activities

By Clem Mohun, Grade 10
Today we visited the Escuela Baru where we helped the school staff paint their classrooms, played with the children and did simple gardening tasks. The children were very excited to see us and receive the school supplies and small gifts we had brought to them, and we tried our best to bond with them despite the language barrier. My favorite part was enjoying the day with my classmates, as well as meeting a few of the wonderful school teachers. I hope to continue to step out of my comfort zone and bond with my peers over the course of the next week.

By Owen Akel, Grade 10
Today we took a bus to a stable and quickly learned about horseback riding. After that, half of the group, myself included, took a bus ride to a waterfall. The other half rode the horses. When we reached the waterfall we took turns climbing up and jumping off. Then, my half of the group rode the horses to lunch, where we had amazing rice beans and chicken before finishing the remainder of the path back to the stables. Overall, it was a pretty amazing day. The activities my group participated in allowed me and my classmates to venture outside of our comfort zones and try new and interesting things. Additionally, this feeling of uncomfortableness allowed us to look to new people to rely on for support, resulting in many new friendships, especially because groups are assigned randomly. 

You can view more photos of Day 2 here.

Day 1: Hola Costa Rica!

We landed in San Jose, Costa Rica around 7:30 a.m. and were greeted by Carlos, Frank and Ruben, our local guides in Costa Rica. After a three-hour bus ride, we arrived at the beautiful Rio Mar Resort in Dominical. We dropped our bags and headed to the beach to cool off. When the second group of travelers arrived, we ate dinner together, cheered on the 49ers to the Super Bowl and ended the night with a salsa lesson from Carlos’ wife, Laura. The boys and girls are exhausted but looking forward working with children at the local elementary schools, touring Hacienda Baru via ziplines and horseback riding tomorrow. Pura Vida! You can view more photos of Day 1 here.

Days 5 and 6: Time for the Debate

Everything had been leading up to this moment. There are no words to describe how anxious I was. We were supposed to arrive at nine, so we had plenty of time to snap
pictures and chat a little bit with our new friends, but the suspense just kept on fueling my anxiety. For the first round of debates the four teams in our group would go one at a time, and thankfully me and Eon were second and were able to practice with team Kentucky. I don’t know about Eon, but personally I was freezing my butt off, seriously regretting having worn a pencil skirt! Each round was around an hour, which just barely gave us enough time to gather our notes and center ourselves. The debate actually went pretty smoothly with minimal hiccups. I expected us to lose from the very beginning, so I was even more shocked to learn that we had won our first round. The next round was not as easy, seeing as we had the highest scoring team in our pool as our competitors. This was also the elimination round where once you mess up, you’re out. The worst part was that we were paired with our previous teammates who knew all of our arguments. We tried our best, and in the end the other team totally killed it. In the end, Kentucky won, and our entire group was awarded the title of being the Champion Pool for having the highest points total. Having given debating my best shot, I know that I have new knowledge and confidence, and a new appreciation for debaters. I had so much fun and the entire trip was such a great opportunity. There are no words to describe how amazing this journey was. -Madison Kwan, Grade 10

Day 4: Training for the Competition

This is the day we finally met the Chinese teams and were put into a larger competition group. Because of the food the night before and the day ahead of us, saying that butterflies were in my stomach would be an understatement. When we got to the location, Madi and I thought that we could hide in the back of the room and avoid social interaction … how wrong we were. When we arrived at the facility, we were told to prepare a small statement about who we were, why we were in Cheng Du, and a special skill that we had. Now, unbeknownst to us, we were the only American team that could speak Chinese, and when we got up to the podium and started giving our statement, a gasp from all the students and faculty could be heard. We were giving our statement in Chinese! The rest of the day went really smoothly after that, and we could tell that the group that we were put with was really smart and qualified. In fact, the next day the teams in our pool actually won all their debates (including us) and we became the Champion Pool! -Eon Kounalakis, Grade 11

Day 3: What It’s Like to Be a Student in China

Part 1: Going to School
We were given an opportunity to visit a local school in Chengdu and see what it’s like to be a student in China. Just like all the students, we started our morning with exercise, also known as 早操(zao cao). All the kids were lined up like little soldiers, mirroring each other exactly while we looked like wild animals randomly kicking and flailing our arms. To top it off, we had to run in a loop to the end of the field and back for what felt like an eternity (10 minutes). The morning exercise was followed by a music class where we were able to observe a 古筝(gu zheng) performance given to us by the many talented students at the school. We also observed the 堂鼓(tang gu), or traditional Chinese drum and the rarest instrument of all: the piano. The day was really fun, and interacting with the students was a kind of reality check for us Americans. -Eon Kounalakis, Grade 11

Part 2: University of Technology
In the afternoon, we took a trip to the University of Science and Technology, one of China’s top nine schools in the country. There, we got to see a beautiful campus and library, as well as their avionics and aerospace facility. I was super excited to get back that night, however, because my host family was going to teach me how to cook traditional Si Chuan (四川) food. We ended up making some of the spiciest food that has ever entered my mouth. The dish was called 麻辣烫, or numb spicy soup. I want to attach a photo to this post just so you, the reader, can see how many peppers were in this ungodly array of spices. -Madison Kwan, Grade 10

Day 2: Pandas and The Consulate

Part 1: Pandas
We saw pandas today — awesome, cute and fascinating pandas. On our drive over, we learned the meaning behind the Chinese word for panda bear, or 熊猫 (Xiong Mao). The word for panda bear in Chinese roughly translates to ‘Bear Cat’ in English. Because they kind of look like bears and kind of look like cats. Anyways, a picture is worth a thousand words, so attached are photos of the cute bear cats. -Madison Kwan, Grade 10

Part 2: The Consulate
After we finished obsessing over the adorable pandas, we were brought from the zoo to the U.S. Consul General in Chengdu. After a 20-minute wait with Chinese security outside, we were permitted entry to the consulate (领事馆). We sat down and were given a interesting presentation on what the U.S. does in Chengdu and China as a whole, and what specifically, the role of the consulate is in Chengdu. It was super interesting how they deal with things such as religious freedom and human rights, and just getting to hear about how it’s done firsthand was an incredibly cool and unique experience. -Eon Kounalakis, Grade 11