Wine to Water Texas A&M in Costa Rica

May 23, 2016

By: Meredith Faix

April 2nd, 2016

Leaving A&M at 4:30 AM. It’s an exciting time. No one in the van can sleep, even though most of us didn’t sleep at all the night before. For some, this will be their first experience with a plane – and many of us have never even been out of the country. This day is solely for travel to Costa Rica, an hour and a half to the Airport, three and a half hour flight, and then a 3 hour drive to the Soltis Center where we will be staying.


Arriving in Costa Rica is an experience in itself. We’re from Texas, so hills amaze us. But in Costa Rica you have mountains and volcanos – real mountains and volcanos! As the plane landed, we all had our faces plastered to the windows, enjoying the sight of San Jose.

From the Airport we drove to the Soltis Center, enjoying the views, stopping for lunch, and generally enjoying the time we had – because the real work would start soon.

April 3rd, 2016

Today we attended church in the local community, but not before taking our first few steps into the Solitis Center’s backyard. You read about the rainforest as a kid and see all the pictures, but nothing can prepare you for seeing it in person.


That night we had our first night walk. Our guide, Alberth, took us into the jungle under the cover of darkness. There we were taught about the dangers of the rainforest (snakes, bullet ants, and bot flies just to name a few), but we were also taught about what the rainforest has to offer in terms of education and resources.

April 4th, 2016

Today we had our first trip to San Isidro, one of the local communities we are here to learn about. We spent some time listening to the mayor – thanking us for coming and taking the time to learn about their water systems and problems. I was pretty amazed, feeling like we should be thanking them instead. After all, they took the time out of their day to show us their water systems and meet with us.

We spent the first half of the day hiking up to see San Isidro’s water systems, which were nothing more than some concrete blocks in the side of the mountain. But they meant so much more – they took the water straight from the tank and directly into the homes using no filtration or chemicals.


The second half of the day was spent in our first WaSH training meeting. WaSH stands for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene – an international initiative headed by the Center of Disease Control. For the first time, four very different groups of people were meeting in one room – and you could sense that it was uncomfortable. As the meeting progressed, people began to relax. By the end, every group asked if they could return tomorrow with more people. It was encouraging to see real interest from the locals, and it showed promise for the week ahead.

April 5th, 2016

Today we met a whole other set of locals, this time from the town of San Juan. They took us up the mountain to look at their water source. This hike was even harder than the first. I have to admit, I was a little nervous when we were introduced to the paramedics that would be accompanying us. Most of the climb was straight up the mountain with very little traction. We visited a total of 3 tanks. At the first, we stopped to add the weekly dose of chlorine and take a water sample. We thought the plan had been to visit the waterfall – but that would have to wait for another day.

The hike looped around to the Soltis Center property, the last tank located just on the edge, and we started the second meeting of the week. This meeting was more informative than the first. With the help of Alberth, we were able to learn more about what the community needed. It was also very engaging for us students, because the topic of Texas’ own water crisis came up. Topics from fines and restrictions were brought up for the San Antonio and Houston areas – and that’s when it really dawned on me that I have a water crisis in my own backyard!

When I’m not in College Station, my home is Wharton Texas, about 40 miles south of Houston. The town is bordered by the Colorado and San Bernard Rivers. Over the past 4 years, rice farmers in the area have experienced no luck in acquiring water rights from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). This has caused a lot of strife among the rice farmers, many having to leave the business altogether or spend money they didn’t have to drill deep wells for groundwater. This is still an ongoing problem today.

When I expressed this problem to Alberth, he just smiled and turned to explain to the locals. I didn’t realize the impact this little story would make. While they understood the issues with watering lawns and the restrictions of usage in Texas, the lack of water for farming hit close to home. Agriculture is paramount in Costa Rica – and the idea that even in the United States we have problems getting water for agriculture, it bridged a gap between two very different groups of people.

When asked what each town needed the most, the lists were very similar – much to their surprise. Number one on their list: a hydrological survey of the area encompassing the three towns. Also on the list was infrastructure, a new collection point, and education in schools about the area’s natural resources. All of these were obtainable in the future, and gave many of us great hope and ideas for future projects in Costa Rica.

April 6th, 2016

Today was probably my favorite day of the trip. Today was the day we were able to visit the schools in San Isidro and San Juan. The first half of the day was spent in the elementary school in San Isidro. When we arrived, there was a lot of excitement from the kids – most of them running to greet us as we entered the campus. Before long we had a huge game of tag going, with all the Aggie’s being ‘it’. Even if we couldn’t speak with them beyond a few phrases we had learned the night before, the game bridged the gap. We played as long as we were allowed, and then followed the students into their classrooms to try our hand at teaching the WaSH program to them.

With the help of translators, we were able to ask the children questions – finding that most of them were able to answer them flawlessly. Questions like, “How often should you brush your teeth?”, “Should you put plastic in the river?”, “Where should plastic go instead?”, and “What are some ways you can conserve water?” Even with all the questions, the students had excellent answers. They seemed to have a real interest in what we were talking about. After the classroom sessions was another round of tag before we had to say goodbye for the time being.

The second half of the day was spent with the children of San Juan, where we had the opportunity to present videos on water topics that we came up with in class prior to the trip. Again, with the help of a translator, we took the time to talk with the children about water conservation, water pollution, and the water cycle.

The highlight of the day was the party. The locals had planned a celebration for us and the local children – complete with a dancing clown. Some of us played soccer, some of us had races with the children, and quite a few of us got dragged into dances with the clown. All in all, it was a great time with the locals that wasn’t focused strictly on business. It allowed us to experience some of their culture and have a little fun while doing it.

April 7th, 2016

Remember that waterfall I mentioned? The one we didn’t have the time to go see? Well the locals insisted that we have the chance to see it. So today our group split in two. Some going down to San Isidro to help with their field day, and some of us going up to visit the waterfall. You can probably guess where I went.

We were joined on the hike by the people of San Juan once more, this time with warm greetings all around. The hike was a long and dangerous one, but the reward was something that I would be hard pressed to explain in words – so I’ll just have to let the pictures do the talking.


The second part of the day was spent on Big Event Costa Rica. Every year Texas A&M University puts on a massive one-day service project around College Station, and this year we were unable to participate because we were on our trip. So we decided to host our own Big Event in Costa Rica to give back to those that had spent the whole week showing us around.

The project was a simple one: dig a few holes and help build a path on the side of a very steep hill. By American standards, we would probably rent a backhoe and have this done in less than an hour. But in this small town, it meant grabbing shovels and getting to work. We split into 2 groups – some with the task of digging the holes for a septic system, while the rest of us worked on clearing the hill of boulders and tree trunks. After hours of hard work, we still weren’t able to complete the whole project. While we felt good about what we had done, it left a sour taste in our mouths leaving the project unfinished. It was decided that we would return the following day and finish what we started.

April 8th, 2016

After exploring much of the area around the Soltis Center, we finally had the chance to explore the center itself. We all geared up once more to enter the jungle, and took off towards the Soltis Center waterfall. After the following week of life changing experiences, it goes without saying that our group had grown quite close. This trip had a lot of laughter, smiles, and hugs. Pictures were taken all around, and we spent quite a bit of time just sitting and looking at the waterfall. Despite all of this, there was a feeling of sadness throughout the group that our trip was coming to an end.

As we hiked back, we took our time – stopping to listen to bird calls, watching army ants move their colony, and feeling proud at spotting a frog before Alberth did. We had truly gained a great respect for the rainforest, its inhabitants, and each other.


The second half of the day was spent back with the people of San Juan and Big Event Costa Rica: Part 2 – finishing up the projects we had started, and taking on some new ones. Half of us stayed and helped plant flowers along the newly constructed walkway, and the others hiked back up the mountain to paint the same tanks we had visited earlier in the week.

April 9th, 2016

Today we spent our time being tourists in La Fortuna, a reward day for all the hard work we had done. Still, we were hardly tourists. We didn’t move through the town viewing the area through our cameras or trying to find the perfect place to take a selfie. We were very aware of our actions and our mannerisms.

While we were relaxing after the long week, our conversations steered toward the people we would be leaving behind, and how we all felt bittersweet about it. While we had spent as much time and energy as possible to help them, we still felt like we could do more. But of course there was always more to do, and we couldn’t possibly do it all in a week. While the general feeling was that we had made a difference, the question weighing on everyone's mind was if it had really been worth it. This is a question that anyone who has experienced a volunteer trip like this has asked at one point or another. Could the money used for us to take this trip had been put to better use elsewhere, or does the human element outweigh all of that? That’s the question we were all struggling with, and there was no easy answer.

April 10th, 2016

Time to say goodbye. Probably one of the hardest things that we have ever had to do was say goodbye to Costa Rica. The country and the people have made a huge impact on our lives in such a short time. The locals were the first goodbye, many of us having made friends throughout the week, so there were hugs all around. The second was the the Soltis Center staff, and Alberth in particular. He was our guide for that week and traveled all over with us, freely handing out knowledge and experiences along the way. There was no doubt that he made our experiences in Costa Rica possible. Hugs and tears all around as we loaded the buses to the airport. Finally, goodbye to Costa Rica itself as we took off from the San Jose Airport. Our experiences here have changed us all for the better, and I will never regret my time spent in the country.

In fact, I can’t wait to go back.