Raffael Winkler

Costa Rica, Sozialdienst 2020

Service abroad? What is that actually? I asked myself this question for the first time in 2018 when I came across it by chance. I was in a five-year tourism training program at the time and was already thinking about what I could do professionally and privately after completing my A-levels, if only there wasn’t this mandatory civil service. Darn it! 

Fortunately, I discovered that there was a much more interesting alternative to the Austrian army. Living abroad for a year, getting to know new cultures, countries and people there not only sounded terrific, but in retrospect turned out to be a complete hit. 

In 2020, I started my service abroad at the La Gamba Tropical Station in Costa Rica. The tropical station is a research station of the University of Vienna and is located directly in the Austrian rainforest on the edge of the Piedras Blancas National Park. I was not well enough prepared for 10 months of living literally in the jungle and so I experienced quite a few adventures during my first weeks. These ranged from encounters with animals (agutis, snakes, etc.) and plants, to very unusual work in the rainforest, to immersion in the new Costa Rican mentality… In summary, it can be said that everything was different. With time, I settled in and was allowed to work on the COBIGA reforestation project for the following nine months. In addition, I supported the tropical station with scientific work, took care of the supervision of students and scientists on site, managed the social media sites and was the first contact person for all visitors, to whom I explained the tropical station in more detail during guided tours. 

In my last month, the tide turned again and I spontaneously changed my placement to Guatemala, where I completed my service at the Casa hogar estudiantil ASOL. In this boarding school in Guatemala City, I was allowed to take care of the children’s leisure activities in a playful way, playing sports with them, taking care of the garden and helping with homework and learning English. 

Where am I now and would I recommend service abroad? 

I can highly recommend a service abroad to anyone who is not afraid of the unknown, likes to experience new things, and wants to have a unique, life-changing time at a young age. Living abroad for a year in your early 20s and having to navigate distant continents on your own not only takes you to the next level personally, but you also begin to deal with important issues of all kinds. I began to question my attitudes and beliefs from back home and asked myself the question, “Is the way we live and grew up in the Western world really the way the rest of the world sees the world?” I can anticipate this answer: No! There is so much to experience out there, every country is different and when you stay in one of those for a longer period of time and live and work together with the locals under one roof, you learn a lot about yourself. This in turn opened up new perspectives and opportunities and you start to acquire new skills. 

In summary, I have had many great experiences, met wonderful people from Costa Rica and from all over Central America, and my relationship with nature and the environment has changed positively through my service abroad in Costa Rica and Guatemala. In this sense Ciao and Pura Vida, Raffael