A week ago I returned from the United Church’s trip to Costa Rica through the Strong Mission.

Most of the time we worked building schools and stairways — I have advanced beyond “complete beginner” at cement mixing — but we went on a few side excursions for our own edification.

The connection to the people, the opportunity to be useful, and the learning that always accompanies a trip outside our comfort zones provided our group with deep and broad experiential lessons. Here were just a few:

Lesson No. 1: The way we define ourselves is key to everything we do.

“We are proud of our clean country,” more than one Costa Rican told us (usually through a translator). Costa Ricans embrace a simpler lifestyle than most North Americans and seem none the worse for it. Their joy in an impromptu evening soccer game, their easy laughter at the small things, their open-hearted sharing of everything they had nurtured us and also led us to pause and reflect.

How much of our “stuff” is essential? Basic needs are important — food, shelter, safety and relationships. But clearly the rest — the perfect pair of shoes for walking in slushy snow, getting into the college of one’s choice, a new iPhone with the latest apps — is not essential to happiness and can actually detract from it.

Lesson No. 2: Places with limited resources use those resources more wisely.

We played soccer at a lit field at night, but only after we chipped in to pay for two-hours worth of flood lights. Toilets flush with less than a quart of water. All uneaten food was sent home with staff for their families. Homes and cars are small, shared and used to the fullest — and then some. Used tires had numerous second lives as steps, playground pieces, plant containers and walls. Water wheels create the electricity for making ox-cart wheels, the traditional farming wagon.

Lesson No. 3: Climate change is everywhere, and themes are similar over great distances.

A coffee farmer described the climate challenges to his crops. They closely resembled those that farmers face around here, including the blueberry farmer in our group: Rain when it should be dry, dry when it should rain, pests that historically don’t make it to that altitude (for us, latitude), and seasonal unpredictability.

The solutions are similar, too: local control, flexibility and diversity, educated consumers and new technologies to reduce waste and save money.

One morning we sat through a hard rain that seemed pretty normal to us, but the locals shook their heads. “It doesn’t rain in January! January is the dry season!”

This morning (back in Minnesota, in early February), I went walking. Beneath my feet, the hard crust on top of the snow that only comes after a serious melt looked, felt and smelled like March. “A month off!” I thought. “Just like Costa Rica!”

Lesson No. 4: Plastic is not a given.

Costa Rica, home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, actively protects life by working towards carbon-neutrality and by eliminating single-use plastic. Though these ambitious goals were originally set for 2021, locals told us that they weren’t there yet, or even close.

But the goals remain, as well as the reforestation projects. There is still plastic in Costa Rica, but progress was clear to me. Within minutes of driving through San Jose, we noted how little garbage lined the streets. If you don’t have much plastic, there is much less to litter.

This approach is a win-win for both Costa Ricans and the planet. Costa Rica’s reputation as clean and safe has brought many visitors (and much revenue) to their country, as well as providing a nicer, simpler life for the people.

As far as I could see, they were happy with their country’s priorities, which include employing no armed forces. To give you a little perspective, the U.S. is home to 13% of the world’s biodiversity. With the will to do so, this fact alone gives us every reason to focus on protection as a motivator to clean and simplify.

There exist many broad differences between our lives in northern Minnesota and those of Costa Ricans. But in the end, it’s always the similarities that rise to the surface.

When our tour guide for the rainforest asked about the different blooming seasons for different plants (since they have no winter and summer, only dry and wet), he observed, “Well you know, God puts it altogether so perfectly.”

We nodded, recognizing and sharing his reverence for our amazing intricate planet and its Creator. This shared spirituality might do more to pull our human race together than anything we humans could have devised on our own.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.