From the moment I started freshman year, I knew I wanted my first spring break ever to be meaningful. However, I’ve never thought I was going to have one of the most life-changing experiences of my life. All thanks to Startup Island, and all the people in my life that made the trip possible.
It was my first month of college when I saw that my friend Anthony posted something about this trip to Costa Rica, organized by Startup Island, which combined entrepreneurship and business workshops with travel experiences, yoga and meditation. Basically, me in a nutshell. I was so excited to hear about it that I immediately applied, got an interview, and started a fundraising campaign. On my 20th birthday, I had all the sum needed, which was probably the most amazing gift I could get. I was shocked. And grateful. Three months later, I still am, especially after experiencing the trip. First, it came right when I needed the most. After two weeks of a social media detox, the trip felt like the perfect addition to complete my “mind & spirit cleanup” haha. Also, my winter term was so chaotic and busy that all I needed was a break. Second, it’s incredible how much the trip helped me grow. I came back to university with a totally different mindset: more self-aware, determined, calm, powerful, and, most important, more mindful.
The trip consisted in one week filled with personal development activities, surrounded by entrepreneurial spirits (who soon became like my brothers and sisters), in an inspiring setting (Costa Rica, you are w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l!). From the moment we got to San José, the vibe of the country was screaming pura vida (“simple life”), which is a Costa Rican saying expressing their philosophy of encouraging the appreciation of life’s simple treasures. Slowing things down, celebrating good fortune, and refusing to take anything for granted… Pretty much living life to the fullest, and just enjoying the gift of being alive. From San José, we had a 3-hour bus ride to our final destination, La Fortuna. The journey was exciting, as we had the chance to admire the breathtaking views of Costa Rica’s landscape. Also, our driver, Orlando, made sure we had a great first impression of his country, telling us many interesting and funny stories. I still remember how he speeded up and passed by a car, shouting “Hasta la vista, baby!” Or how, when we asked him when was the last time the volcano we were passing by erupted, he told us “Hmmm… 3 months ago,” making us (just a bit) concerned.
Once we got to our accommodation, at the Leaves and Lizards Retreat, we were so tired that we went straight to sleep, in our little cabins. The first morning felt like waking up in paradise: I woke up to the sound of the rainforest, and to Sam telling me “Tori, come see a monkey!” I went on the terrace and was ASTONISHED by the breathtaking view we had: the rainforest, in its glory, was vibrating of life and energy. Also, a little monkey was saluting us from far away. Barefoot, I started walking in the nature, finding the perfect rock to sit on and meditate. I closed my eyes, and started listening to the monkeys, birds, and roosters. I closed my eyes and felt the connection, the purity, and the peace of nature. I closed my eyes and I felt like home (weird to say that when your actual home is on another continent?). However, I felt comfortable. And somewhat free. I felt like I woke up in the right place, at the right moment. That’s when I realized a life-changing experience will begin, and I was not wrong. Let’s see what it was about…
Meaningful and Inspirational Workshops
“Meaningful” is the best way to describe the workshops held during the trip. They were more than a sequence of business terms and theories – they were a huge addition to our personal development. They were filled with significant conversations, spontaneous revelations, and a lot of aha moments! We started by talking about “The Business of Being Happy and Healthy”, which at some point got us sharing our childhood dreams, making us question what made us give up on those “I want to be a superhero!” 5-year old goals. We even had a workshop which turned into a walk through the forest, learning about concepts such as “social currency”. Lastly, we learned about “The Path to Purpose”, listening to Emma’s super inspirational story, which personally influenced me a lot. Emma, one of the coaches and part of the Startup Island Team, was my mentor throughout the trip. We got along from the moment we met, and I loved hearing the stories about her career experience, roadblocks, and also the fact that she had the courage to quit her job and do a 3-month solo trip to Nicaragua, in order to learn Spanish. She came to Costa Rica straight from Nicaragua, and seeing her courage inspired me SO MUCH. We had coaching sessions together, during which she helped me figure out how to best incorporate my interests and passions in my career life. It felt so good to have someone listen to my ideas, and help me shape them in the most rewarding and efficient way. Thank you, Emma. You’re such an inspiration.
When a Horse Reveals More About Yourself Than You’ve Ever Known
Another workshop was entitled “The Power of the Herd”, and it taught us about the way horses interact with each other, and the different leadership roles they take in groups. Sally and Debbie explained to us how we can take the same leadership roles in relation with our horses, and the way they can feel any intention we have, thus being a great learning experience. I was wondering “How can a horse teach me something?”, but the next day I got to try equine facilitated learning, and trust me when I say that this is the real mindfulness practice. My horse was named Cosmo, because he had small white dots which looked like a galaxy. Well, I’m sure the Universe sent this little guy to me, because he taught me SO DAMN MUCH about myself.
First, I’ve learned to manifest different leadership roles while interacting with him. One of the roles was the Leader, which basically means that you lead the way, and the horse follows you. When you are doing that, your attention has to be 100% on the present moment, in order for them to listen to you. Now here’s the thing… Even if you are fully in the moment, but there is the smallest amount of doubt in your mind that you will not make him follow you, he will sense that and literally not move. Also, if there is any moment your attention gets caught by something else while you are walking, he will sense that too, and stop following you. Even if it is as little as looking at the ground for a second. It’s crazy, isn’t it? The beginning was tough, but slowly Cosmo showed me the potential I have in me (it was much like he was saying “Really? You can do so much better.”) By refusing to listen to me every time I was doubting myself, not only did he make aware of how often we tend to underestimate our power, but he also trained my mindfulness muscle, forcing me to keep my attention on only one thing. Second, after I “mastered” the roles, I’ve learned how to do dance moves with Cosmo. We were stepping back and forth, and then doing circles around. Again, not as simple as it sounds. At some point, I was walking, while he barely moved from his place. It happened again. And again. Until I stopped, breathed in, filled myself with energy, and shouted “You are going to follow me!”. Then I stepped confidently ahead, believing my words. The next second, he was following me.
Lastly, after the whole training, each person had to dance with their horse on a random song. When my turn came, Debbie came to me and asked “What do you want to get out of this?”. I said, “I want to feel powerful”. She said “Fine, we’ll make that work.”, and installed a big obstacle on the track for the horse to jump over. I was shocked. Me? To make the horse jump over obstacles? Not only was I supposed to use a lot of power to guide him around, but I also had to extremely increase my energy in order to make him jump properly. When the song started playing, I focused all my energy and started interacting with Cosmo, guiding him around, dancing with him, and eventually preparing for the big jump. I had such a high energy that he started running, and I still remember the enthusiasm and joy we all shared when we saw him MAKE THE JUMP. Not to mention that the lyrics of the song were “I love my life, I am powerful, I am beautiful, I am free”. It gives me goosebumps only by thinking of that certain moment. After the show was over, Debbie asked me “How do you feel?”, to which I answered “I feel powerful!”. From that moment, I’ve been so aware of my power and the way I manifest it that I can see big changes in my interactions, and in the way I approach projects, meetings, tasks, or simple conversations. Also, I understood my real potential. Thank you, Cosmo.
After the training, we rode horses through a superb scenery, and after about one hour of horse-riding we reached a beautiful waterfall hidden in the heart of the forest. Perfect ending of such an empowering day.
Leaving a Piece of Me in Monterrey
After learning from horses, the following day we learned from children. The day consisted of a cultural exchange, and it was definitely the highlight of the trip: we went to a local community student center in Monterrey, where we helped students paint their library, the place where they will go to watch movies, read, study, and feel safe. We met children from all ages, and, even if we were not talking Spanish and they didn’t know a lot of English, we somehow managed to interact well with each other. It goes beyond language: it was about a common goal (give life to the library!), music (playing Latino songs in the background), and joking around (such as painting each other’s faces). My little helpers and I immediately got close to each other, and eventually we were singing, laughing at each other, and taking photos. Many times they were calling me “Muchacha!”, and start telling me all these stories in Spanish. Even if I didn’t understand a thing, I was laughing and saying “Si… Si”. We were already best friends.
Some unforgettable moments were when one of the little boys, Paulino, started painting happy faces on my cheeks, and I did the same in return for him; or when I taught them how to draw the guaria morada, the Costa Rica’s national flower – after listening to my instructions, they dwelled in the process of painting, enjoying it so much that I looked at them and said to myself “This is what “pura vida” means. The ability to enjoy simple things like this, and be so happy about it.” After painting for a couple of hours, we finished by playing a song and shooting a music video! Everyone started dancing, and we were feeling so good that we didn’t want to leave. Unfortunately, we had to, but I feel like I left a piece of myself there, and I know I will come back one day (hopefully knowing Spanish), to see the kids that taught me what “pura vida” means.
Being at Peace with Ourselves
There is one secret ingredient that made these 7 days even more significant: every morning started with yoga and meditation. Waking up at 6am and beginning your day with one hour of yoga followed by meditation brings a lot to the overall productivity and vibe of the day, making it much more meaningful. By the time we were having breakfast, we were already feeling accomplished thanks to a great early start. Taking time for introspection before you start your day is so important, and long-term it brings so much value to your daily life. Now that I am back to college, I am trying to wake up early, and before getting ready for classes I like to read, journal, and take some time for meditation. These simple actions positively influence the way I react to happenings in my life, so that even if I experience the worst day ever, I can find the balance to respond mindfully.
Finding the “People Who Get it”
However, the trip was more than workshops, beautiful views, and activities. Most of all, it was about the people. In our first morning of the trip, we did a short exercise, and one of the tasks was to complete the blanks for “When I have conversations that can last forever, I’m talking about (…) with (…)”. I chose to write “When I have conversations that can last forever, I’m talking about the beauty of life, personal development, dreams and goals, travel, passions, spirituality with people who get it“. I didn’t know what that “people who get it” meant, but it was the first thing that came to my mind. Shortly after, I realized I was surrounded by the people who get it.
After a week, I was able to look at our group of travelers and see them as my brothers and sisters: Sam, Trevor, Declan, Anthony, Nico, J. Mott, Emma… Each of them taught me something new, and every single person had their role in our little family. It was such a liberating feeling to be myself and be so comfortable with someone, and now I feel like they are the people I could call at 3am and ask for help, if I would ever need it. Also, we could go from laughing at each other to having super deep talks, and it felt so good to be with someone who understands. One night, I was admiring the stars (if you don’t know yet, that’s a big thing for me – I absolutely love going stargazing!!!), searching for a group of stars that, when I was in the 6th grade, I decided it was my lucky constellation. After a while of looking and thinking that there was no way I could see my lucky-arrow-star-constellation, Declan came and helped me find it. In a moment, he found the arrow, and the only difference was that it pointed in a different direction! I was SO HAPPY. Also, it’s all about perspective haha! The moment was followed by a 2-hour deep conversation, and that’s for sure something I miss having.
Besides the great group of travelers, the Leaves and Lizards team was everything someone could ask for. They literally made the place. From Alejandro‘s funny jokes and delicious Pina Colada (which I ordered every single night), Andrea‘s yoga classes and hilarious personality, Sally‘s ability to understand both horses and humans, Leila‘s photography skills and love for Costa Rica (when I asked her how did she decide to move from France to here, she told me “Well I just came for a few days… And then I decided not to leave”), Enrique’s ability to work with horses, to, finally, the people who brought this place to life, Debbie and Steve, two wonderful human beings from whom I learned a lot.
However, all of this could not have been possible if it wasn’t for the crazy ideas and determination of Brian and Josh, the two founders of Startup Island. They made sure we were having the time of our life, and took care of every little detail of the trip. For me, they were the biggest support ever, and I can’t put into words how much everything they did through Startup Island helped me, and changed my life. It is an unforgettable experience that I will recommend to anyone and everyone.
When I started college, I didn’t expect my freshman year to be filled with so many meaningful experiences that will add so much to my personal growth. Startup Island was more than talking about startups, as I thought it would be in the first place – it was a time of discovering ourselves, our values, strengths, and the things that make us happiest. It was a reminder of the type of people I want to be surrounded by. No wonder why, coming back to university, I felt such a big need to take time for myself, analyze the relationships in my life, and curate them. The time in Costa Rica, along with my mindfulness practice which has been going on for three weeks, made me realize which were the connections that were not fulfilling my soul – that is, people whom I didn’t share the same values and interests with, or whom gave me the feeling of taking away my power. Honestly, that’s one of the biggest takeaways from the trip.
Finally, Startup Island put me in a different mindset, one of power, confidence, and mindfulness. Since I came back from the trip, I’ve manifested the mindset in all areas of my life (projects, meetings, competitions, relationships…), and I’ve watched how it positively influences my life.
I’m beyond grateful for this trip and all the teachings, connections, and memories that came with it.
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