Peacebuilders from around the world sat quietly gathered around a stove, centered in Casa de Lopez. Lucky, the one-eyed, deaf dog, snuck in from outside, as gentle raindrops signed an imminent storm approaching. Headlamps shone far through windowless gaps into majestic darkness only the rainforest can produce. A peacebuilder asked, “What is the secret to your happiness?”

Dona Flor, our host, closed her twinkling, grandmotherly eyes and smiled gently. She waited patiently for the translation, but her answer had long been thought out. “Amor,” she replied surely.

Amor, the Spanish word for “love,” surrounded our group from day one of our Practicum on Experiential Peacebuilding in Costa Rica, offered by Outward Bound Peacebuilding in partnership with Outward Bound Costa Rica. The Practicum is a program that combines a unique outdoor experience with experiential learning techniques in a multi-cultural environment, which includes backpacking, hiking, rappelling, an overnight stay with a local Costa Rican family, and a day at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Eleven strangers from many places around the world, combined with five Outward Bound instructors spent nine days trekking through the Costa Rican rainforest, living with locals under the most gracious of hospitality, and visiting the University of Peace to cap off the experience.

We were stripped of some of our commonplace luxuries (cell phones, music, watches, and deodorant to name a few), but given the greatest gift throughout the journey: camaraderie. Each peacebuilder faced challenges along the way, ranging from cuts, scrapes, bruises, and blisters, to missing family, friends, kids, partners, and pets, and even rappelling a 100-foot waterfall, done for the first time for many of us. However, support of all shapes and sizes ensured both individual and group success. Heavy packs were kindly redistributed; bug spray, sunscreen, and beloved sweets were eagerly shared; and frequent, complimentary shout-outs to individual members fueled the 55 kilometer trek.

Stories and recipes sprinkled conversation as welcomed distractions from the harsh, but empowering heat, cold, bugs, sun, rain, mud, and breathtaking mountainous terrain. Songs, nicknames, jokes, and playful banter kept smiles on tired faces. Hugs and high-fives for all after each difficult segment motivated each of us to keep moving forward.

Activities on consensus building, conflict resolution, and cultural awareness educated us, allowing our “lab of learners” to test out strategies to bring home. A daily Spanish educator taught phrases and useful words, meanwhile cocineros and trapos ensured enjoyable meals and the daily hanashita kept a journal for the group, often seeking a quiet space to observe and record. The shaman and agua mono monitored both health and water consumption, frequently checking in with group members. Each day, two new caciques* fearlessly lead the group both physically and mentally, charged with such tasks as early morning wake-ups (perhaps the most difficult task of all), motivational speeches, individual check-ins, and setting group pace. Our small society functioned like a well-oiled machine, even with each member switching roles on a daily basis.

Cultural diversities, such as location (we had members from North America, Central America, South America, Europe, the Middle East and Australia), age (participants ranged from 22-44, and an instructor celebrated her 55th birthday on the trip), education, occupation, native language, and many personality types guaranteed a fascinating conversation. Even with these cultural differences, very little conflict sparked through the group. Perhaps that is expected with a community of peacebuilders, but the experience succeeded due to the gentle and understanding nature all the group members.

I applied for the Practicum on Experiential Peacebuilding to learn about peacebuilding and a culture I was entirely unfamiliar with, but I learned more than I ever expected. I received tangible skills and experiences, of which I will spend my life trying to capture in words for those who supported me from home. The incredible victories and inner happiness were capable only through the relationships built at lightning speed. Selfless acts overwhelmed each day, with all participants and educators stepping up where needed. This experience cannot be captured into words, because perhaps just one word can describe it all: amor.

Shannon Dobrovolny

*For translations and descriptions of the Spanish words, please click here.