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  • Jala Wright

Outside the Country, Looking Inside Myself

This past summer, I was selected to travel to the town of Gandoca, Costa Rica and participate in conservation and environmental work for my ACE experience. My participation included doing sea turtle patrols and releasing baby sea turtles, cleaning up elementary and high schools, and visiting indigenous lands in Specueway.

In addition to the service component, I took a deep dive headfirst into Costa Rican culture by speaking Spanish with the locals, trying thousands of different organic foods and fruit juices (watermelon was my favorite), and performing salsa lessons (trust me my hips move like no other now!)

"My ACE in Costa Rica experience was an answered prayer I didn’t know I needed for my self-development."

Prior to the trip, I was uncertain about trying new things, being away from family (especially my mom, who is my best friend), and simply just being alone. I was dependent on others at the expense of my individual growth, overlooking my potential to truly tap into myself.

I am so grateful that I have always been surrounded by love, whether that was family, friendships, or a relationship. A moment has not gone by where my cup has not been poured into. Before the trip, I knew I would be with other student-athletes, but I knew that my experience would be my own. I needed to make the most of it.

I was so anxious before the trip. I remember sitting in the movies on a last outing with my friends before leaving, just thinking about how I was going to be gone for 3 WEEKS. I have never been away from familiarity for more than a week, let alone 3 weeks. Every off-the-wall scenario entered my brain, even being kidnapped! Literally, I was sitting in the theater, shaking, not comprehending the movie playing on the screen in front of me, only the one playing in my head.

"When my departure date to Costa Rica arrived, I had to make a decision. I could count down every moment until I was back on US grounds… Or I could choose to be where my feet are and enjoy whatever journey was in store for me."

I’m so glad I chose option 2.

The first week was eye-opening. On the first day exploring the city, some random man tried to hit on me and smack my butt, but he missed and hit my leg. God was testing me already on day 1. At that moment, I could have shrunk and gave in to wanting to go home immediately. But, I politely cursed at him and laughed as we continued into the city.

The first week was also a period of adjusting. We embarked on many different excursions; the cacao farming and sea turtle patrol tested me the most.

On the show Naked & Afraid, contestants must survive in the jungle. Even though I was not naked, I was truly afraid. Would I survive 2 hours of cacao farming in the Gandoca Jungle? It seemed simple: weed, clean, and inspect the cacao trees. But prior to starting, our leaders warned us about snakes and insects roaming around just above our heads and at our feet! I was shocked instantly. I felt terrified knowing I must complete a task, despite my fears.

"Although I do this all the time in softball, such as pitching with bases loaded and no outs, this experience still felt completely different. I had to push myself to take on tasks with high risks, ones that I would never even consider doing alone."

I leaned on God, my teammates, and my perseverance to overcome. I had to shift to a positive mindset that this was for the betterment of the community, rather than staying stuck in the mindset that this is God awful.

On the sea turtle patrols, the other student-athletes and I would venture to the beach around midnight. Sea turtles build nests, then lay their eggs between 10pm and 4am, so it was a hit or miss opportunity. The experience tested my patience. I am a person who walks fast, hates waiting for my food at restaurants, and hates any situation where I must trust the process. Sitting in the dark for over 5 hours waiting for something that may never happen is a true test of your will. In hindsight I realized that most situations require a period of stillness.

"Even though I would rather just know the necessary steps to reach my desired outcome, things must happen naturally to reach their full potential. Thankfully, ACE in Costa Rica allowed me to develop this aspect of myself."

In the moments of just sitting on the beach hoping for a sea turtle to come, I would try to distract myself by being vulnerable with the other student-athletes to grow our bond. I would enjoy the nature around me while listening to God's creation. Or, I would pray. I would thank God for putting me in moments to grow and talk to him about anything to build our relationship.

During the second week of ACE, my spirits began to dwindle. I was homesick like no other. The cold showers and eating rice and beans three times a day was slowly killing me. I also started to not feel like myself, with my hair undone and my face constantly breaking out from the humidity. My mother was heavy on my mind. We communicated through WhatsApp, but I needed more than just words on a screen. I craved her hugs and affection.

As I began to grow quite uncomfortable, I really tapped into my faith. I had long desired to go on this trip, and I would not let myself back out now. I prayed for inspiration and guidance to prosper through each day. I would find comfort in the little blessings granted upon me, such as having free time to read a book, having extras at dinner time, or spending time creating a hammock with others.

The first two weeks, I was tested in all areas. It was a constant roller coaster of emotions; I never was able to find a balance between up and down. Either I was super joyful or super sorrowful. I am grateful for the “old me” during the first two weeks because I would have never experienced the beautiful memories in the third week without having to find the courage to keep going, and having to lean into my faith.

I often reminisce on these beautiful days during the third week. These memories include completing my first hike (4.5 hours long!) and witnessing the gorgeous Manzanillo views. I saw a waterfall for the first time! I visited Cahuita National Park and saw the clearest blue water! I learned authentic salsa dancing from the locals, smiling ear to ear the entire time! Most importantly, I felt like I reached the top of the mountain after experiencing every single opportunity the ACE in Costa Rica experience had to offer.

"Costa Rica healed me in ways I never knew l needed to be independent. I made the experience mine, and I am extremely proud of myself."

It was truly a beautiful sanctuary for my mind, body and soul, despite all the ups and downs. I will forever be grateful for all I endured.

Now, after the trip, I continue the same practices to continue developing myself. I am okay with doing activities that are outside the norm. Before Costa Rica, I would have never agreed to be vulnerable and share my story through UNCUT. I am okay with pouring out my fears, doubts, and anxieties into God knowing his plan will work out for me. Most importantly, I am okay being alone with myself.

"I am loving every part of me – spending time with myself, serving others with kindness, and courageously experiencing the world to all of its fullness – through this journey we call life."

- Jala Wright

Photo Credits: Jala Wright, Duke Athletics


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