Months ago, I did a Google search to find volunteer opportunities abroad. The trouble with these opportunities is that they often involve a time commitment of at least two weeks if not months, and there is usually a hefty participation fee. Now, I’m all for donating time and money, but at the time I had a low balance in time*.
A week after emailing several organizations I had researched, I was disappointed that I still hadn’t heard back from any of them. I checked my email probably two hundred times a day. Finally, after clicking “Refresh” about two thousand times, my inbox held a reply.
The email came from Bikes for the World, a non-profit near Washington D.C. that collects bicycles, parts, and tools and delivers them to developing countries. Between 2005 when the organization was founded and 2012, they have collected and donated over 70,000 bikes! The director, Keith Oberg, was offering me the opportunity to help distribute a container of used bicycles to needy communities near Pital, Costa Rica. Pumped about the opportunity to help, I immediately booked a flight to San Jose. (On Spirit, of course.) Keith and I emailed back and forth for weeks. Customs (not that kind of customs, but the kind that confiscates homemade raspberry jam your mom made you) in Costa Rica does not give much notice when a container passes or fails inspection, so we were unsure of when we would be able to distribute the bikes. Logistically, it was a headache and a half.
The bikes came from collections held in Maryland and Virginia, and from there they traveled by boat to the Caribbean port of Limon. From Limon they were transported by truck about five hours inland to a tiny, tiny town (if you can call it that) near Pital known as Los Angeles. Actually, it’s not really known as Los Angeles because we must have asked about eleven people in Pital where it was and no one knew!
In fact, one “Nico” (that’s what some “Ticos” call Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica) pointed us down an old dirt road. After miles of driving down that old dirt road, we realized Los Angeles probably wasn’t at the end of it. So Jose, my travel companion/driver, honked near a ramshackle house (if you could call it a house) and a young man came to the door and told us that we need to turn back if we’re looking for Los Angeles. Many miles and potholes later, we finally locate Los Angeles. The dead giveaway was the futbol field covered in bicycles.
We spent the next few hours sorting bicycles into five groups. Representatives from five neighboring communities would each receive one fifth of the bicycles, and the primary task was to make sure that each group received the same amount of bicycles (544 isn’t divisible by five so we had to bust up a bike into fifths. Joking!) and the same quality of bicycles.
Speaking of quality, about 80% of these bicycles were not ride-able. They were beaters. Actually, let’s downgrade the status to has-been beaters. The locals seemed all but blind to this and their eyes lit up like mine do when I first walk into Michael’s. In the U.S., we’re accustomed to getting new or at least, “like new” products. Heck, most of these bikes wouldn’t even fit into the worst of the condition categories on eBay. But for these low-income farmers and pineapple plantation workers, with a little tinkering these old toys could become treasure in the form of transportation.
Along with the bikes, they sorted out five piles of bike parts and a few helmets. When everything had been sorted into five equal-looking lots, the representatives drew numbers out of a hat to see which community would get which lot. To me, cuatro seemed to have the most potential.
Then we waited around for different trucks to arrive so we could get each lot loaded and on its way to its respective community. Once the bikes arrived to their new home, the community would host a bike sale with the proceeds made from selling these bikes/beaters going towards community projects. For example, the Costa Rican woman who seemed to be in charge of the morning was a principal at a nearby elementary school and money made from her community’s bike sale would go towards building a new classroom.
Now, I’ll probably never get to see that classroom, but I don’t need to in order to feel satisfied. Seeing the looks on the faces of the folks that I had the privilege of helping, or rather working with, was rewarding enough. I did not book a trip to Costa Rica to spend time with other tourists in all-inclusive resorts. The goal was to get to know the locals, and here in Los Angeles, as the only American, I could say mision cumplida!
*After this trip, I have a low balance in time and money.