Costa Rica Adventures – Wrap Up & Reflection

If I had to choose just one word to describe the crazy mix of emotions I’m feeling right now, it’d be “wow.”

I’m back home in Las Vegas (or rather, to my new home in Vegas), five weeks have already gone by, and my study abroad adventures are done. Just wow.

A friend of mine told me it would just sneak up on me once I got really into living over there, and that suddenly the time would be gone and I’d want to stay.

And she is so right. I miss it. The people, the food, the environment, and dare I say it, after all my complaining about rain, even the weather. I wasn’t expecting all of this, especially considering how out of place I had felt at the beginning of the program. But, after getting past the whole culture shock phase, and allowing myself to open up to the culture and people around me, it lifted so much weight off my shoulders. Even though the class workload started ramping up in at the end, I started to have fun my last couple weeks. A lot of fun.

Hands down, one of the best parts of my experience was my host family. I feel like I got so lucky with mine. Originally I was nervous with conversing with my host mom in the mornings, since I was so concerned about making mistakes with my Spanish, or not having so much to talk about, but I took it as a challenge to improve myself and soon enough my meals with her were often the highlight of my day. She never judged me and always went out of her way to help me, from the language, to getting around town, to letting me vent to her about my school struggles. I can’t rave enough about Mayra. Honestly one of the sweetest and most hardworking people I’ve ever met, and I’m really going to miss our chats about life, and bonding over karaoke, cooking or ranting about how horrible the drivers and roads are.

My classes were also fantastic, though a bit of a strange mix of extremely challenging and then at other times, oddly relaxing. I loved my teachers so much, and they made class feel much more personal, and not like I was just being lectured to or like I was just another number. They loved learning about and engaging with all of us and I learned so much from them.

My Latin American Short Story and Essay class basically doubled as a history course with how much background about the culture my teacher, Carlos, would give us about Latin America, and how much energy and joy he showed while explaining it. He truly made me appreciate literature and the language so much more as a whole. Even though I was stressing like mad because he gave us like a day to finish 4 pages worth of essays for our final exam and my internet was garbage at the time, I loved being there. And as a positive, I definitely feel more confident in my speed-writing in a foreign language skill. Best coffee-fanatic, motorbike-riding teacher I have ever had.

With the Spanish Conversation class, I could really see the fruits of my labor after time went on. When I first started, I wasn’t feeling nearly as confident in my speaking ability, and I wasn’t sure how much it would help me in the end. However, having an hour completely dedicated to speaking and listening several times a week really adds up. Also, Alejandra the instructor was so sweet, understanding and knowledgeable, and also taught us a lot of ways the ticos converse and interact, as well as some cultural knowledge. This made interacting with the locals so much easier, and even though it was still difficult for me at times, I am so thankful I had that class and it really laid a foundation for me to keep improving.

Most of my time was spent studying or working on school projects, but I did take another few trips to San Jose, and was able to see the both the Jade Museum and the Children’s Museum. Would definitely recommend both! The Jade Museum had so much information about the indigenous people of Costa Rica, their customs, and of course about the pieces of jade they constructed, and a whole lot of other things as well. My amazing Short Stories professor brought my class on one of our off days, and it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the whole trip, especially since he gave us tons of history lessons throughout the tour. The Children’s Museum was pretty fun, too, even as an adult. They had a wide variety of exhibits and activities for all ages, and I was able to learn some things ranging from the country’s history, to technology, to even ancient Egypt. I was also able to make a tico friend there, when I was least expecting it, which was a great cherry on top!

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Speaking of friends, I’d say what really made the experience complete for me is the fact that I was able to meet so many great people. Before I had really come out of my shell, I still thought Costa Rica was a decent enough place, but I felt a little disconnected from everything. Even though I was surrounded by other people, I still felt this pang of loneliness because I convinced myself I didn’t totally fit in. But, once I let myself open up to more people, and not feel so anxious about trying to connect with the locals, my classmates, and my host family, as cheesy as it might sound, I felt like as if I’d been nervously groping around in the dark and suddenly the lights came on and everything was alright. And now because I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone, I’ve made some amazing friends, learned more about the world, and most importantly, about myself.

Whenever I’d seen other people talk about how studying abroad was so fantastic and completely changed their lives, I always had this thought at the back of my mind like, “Are these people exaggerating?” Even after I’d been in Costa Rica for a while, and had noticed some progress, I still wasn’t totally convinced. But now that my traveling adventures are over for now, one takeaway I have from all of this is that attitude really is everything. You can’t wait for change to happen in your life, you need to get out there and make it happen yourself. Once I changed my expectations for the better, and how I approached my situation, I realized that I’ve grown. I can handle myself in a completely different place, with a different language and culture, and successfully at that. And because of that, I feel a lot more confident about myself and my future. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything in the world, and I am so, so glad that I took the initial leap to go.

Costa Rica will always have a special place in my heart now, and I will go back someday, guaranteed. I’m so thankful to everyone that I met for making my first trip abroad amazing beyond belief. This was just the beginning for me, and I’m going to take everything I’ve learned from this experience as I keep on trucking on this journey through life.

Pura vida, everyone.

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Costa Rica Adventures – Whoa, We’re Halfway There!

Alright, couldn’t resist the fitting yet cheesy lyric-based title for this one.

The days have been racing by. Summer classes are usually intensive enough on their own, but combining that with studying abroad and all the activities we’ve been doing has been like starring in my own action movie, jumping from one thing to the next. We just finished our midterms this week, and now there’re only two weeks until I go back to the US. Part of me is glad to get back to see my family, friends and pets, and to not have to deal with rain straight up every single day, but at the same time, there are things I’ll miss about being here, particularly how sweet my host family is. Costa Rica’s been good to me, and I can see why other classmates recommended it for studying abroad.

When it comes to the actual studying part, the classes have been challenging, since they’re taught completely in Spanish and they require me to really use what I’ve learned in grammar classes. Now that a few weeks have gone by, I can see that they’re really starting to help my knowledge of the language. It’s a great feeling to be reading a classic story from Latin American literature in my short story and essay class and being able to understand way more than I figured I’d be able to.

I’m still having problems understanding most fast, native-level speech, but I’m starting to be able to pick up the words better. My vocabulary is still pretty much trash, so I won’t always know what people are saying a lot of the time, but now it doesn’t always sound like nonsense like the parents talking in Charlie Brown. Progress! The struggle is definitely real, but that journey of a thousand miles (or in this case, words), really does start with a single step, and even though it’s been difficult at times, I’m excited to see where I’ll be when this is all over.

It’s become a lot easier to think in Spanish, too. Though at times that makes me forget how to speak in English properly, which can lead to some . . . interesting exchanges where I can’t remember words or grammar.

For instance, my host mom put together some coleslaw at lunch the other day and she said it was her first time making it. So then we talked in Spanish for a bit about my day and such, and later, she asked me what the name of it was in English, since she had described it as ensalada de col. In my head, I thought I’d put together the perfect sentence to describe it to her, and then I started talking and realized I forgot the word “coleslaw”. I was racking my brain so hard for it too, and then about five minutes later I finally remembered it. Language interference is great. Hopefully it’s another sign I’m improving. Hopefully.

On the more negative side. I’m still having some issues when it comes to conversing with people. I think I’m still thinking too hard and fearing making mistakes at times. Especially when I’m having a not-as-good language day and I can’t remember how to say a lot of things, I’ll start freezing up and get caught in the cycle of feeling nervous, then freaking out more because I realize I’m nervous. It’s definitely not as bad as it was when I first came here, at least. I think I just need to remember to take deep breaths and chill. I do love that the ticos, or at least the friendly ones I’ve spoken to, always seem happy that I make the effort to talk with them in Spanish, no matter how broken it ends up sometimes. Makes it all feel worth it.

Moving away from the educational side of things, on to the pictures! The extra trips and activities we’ve been involved in have really enriched my experience here. Through the school, we’ve gone to:

  1. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a beautiful, gigantic park and animal sanctuary with trails and, as the name suggests, waterfalls.

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  2. San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, for a tour of the downtown area of the shops, markets, and historic buildings. We also watched a play adaptation of Frankenstein in the beautiful National Theater.

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  3. Punta Leona, a beach resort with some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.

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  4. The Costa Rica vs. Panama qualifier game at the National Stadium of Costa Rica. My first soccer game I’ve been to, which was definitely an experience to say the least. The fans of both teams, especially Panama’s, were hilarious to watch. Probably more fun than the game itself, since it ended up as a 0-0 tie.

With some other classmates, I also went on a guided tour of Cafe Brit, which is a very popular coffee manufacturer here. They gave us lots of free samples (always great) of their various flavors and gave us some tips on how to brew coffee properly, and how to check if the coffee you order is good quality. That was definitely a good day.

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Also, Amy, one of my classmates who goes to the same university as me, introduced me to a school that teaches English to adult ticos. She volunteers there on Thursday afternoons and helps the students with speaking activities, and invited me to come with her. One of the best decisions of my time here, without a doubt. The students and teacher are all really chill, and they genuinely enjoy having us there to help them learn. We get to practice our Spanish with them, too, so win-win!

Not too long ago I was feeling a little out of place, and possibly out of my league when it came to handling myself while abroad. Now, although things aren’t perfect, giving everything an honest try, from talking to new people, to new foods, to studying, has really been making me feel confident about my decision to come here. I’m definitely not going to become a master of the language in five weeks, but my foundation is getting stronger and I think I’ll be on a better path for myself once I do return home. Most importantly, I can tell that I’ve grown here, and I’m ready to keep moving forward. Well, after enjoying a bit of relaxation time after dealing with midterms, that is.

Until next time! Pura vida, everyone.

 

Costa Rica Adventures – Days 3, 4 & 5

Sorry for the delay! It’s been almost non-stop action here so far, so this one’s a pretty long post.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but since I hadn’t really traveled to another country before this, I didn’t truly understand how something like culture shock worked. Sure, I figured it could happen, but it’s a completely different thing when you finally experience it for yourself. My third day here was when it hit me. I think my brain finally caught up to speed that I was in a different place, living with different people, and that a situation like this requires a very open mind.

I’m not the most extroverted person, so living with a different family, even if they’re very sweet to me, and adjusting to a new routine is still a little odd for me to get used to. Let alone when they don’t really speak English and my confidence in my Spanish ability is not the highest. It’s a bit frustrating too that one’s language abilities seem to fluctuate, and one day you seem to be able to understand everything someone says to you, and then the next you need everyone to explain things to you like you’re five.

Language learning is definitely a test of patience.

So, that’s pretty much what day 3 was for me. I got up at around 6AM, got myself together, and then my host mother Mayra called me over to breakfast. I was ready to try and shoot the breeze a bit, and then that turned pretty messy. It’s interesting how there can be a disconnect between what you’re thinking and what you say, because in my head I was like “yeah okay, I’m going to ask her about any good places for tours, talk to her about my classes and my life back home a little,” and then it came out like “Uh… so are there um, you know, places that are um, popular for people not from Costa Rica to um, visit?”. Bless Mayra for her patience, she’s so sweet, and got what I was saying. I didn’t totally understand her response, but bless her.

Later, planned to visit the university to walk around there a little and hang out with some of the other people in my program. Since Mayra walked with me my second day and also drove me there before, I thought I’d remember the way since you just go down this road by her house and then go straight until you get to a park, and then turn left and the uni’s at the end of that street. Simple, right? Oh, that’s what I thought too.

I got lost about 4 times. Turned left at the wrong park, went down a few wrong streets, and I didn’t bring any water with me and I’m sweating like crazy from the humidity and walking up hills, definitely looking like a fish out of water. So I gave up and went back home (thankfully I made a mental note of where I turned at so I could go back).

I think the worst part was that when I got back to the house, my host dad was asking me what happened, and for some reason I couldn’t remember how to say that I got lost. So I tried to tell him I took the wrong path, and he said he didn’t understand. Eventually he was like “oh, you mean your friends weren’t there?” and I just gave up and smiled and nodded. RIP, my confidence level. Later, Mayra was surprised that I was home and she asked what happened and then drove me to the school a little later so I could see the way again. At that point I realized I’d just turned too early and it would’ve been fine otherwise.

I was so tired from walking super far, and embarrassed for messing up a simple route and the fact that everything people were saying to me that day just went in one ear and out the other. Then there was another issue.

I wanted to buy a cheap, local cell phone so I could make calls to my host mom and the university, so Mayra took me to buy one the day before, which seemed fine, got a SIM card and all that. Charged it all up and then it took a while to figure out how to get it running. Half the time the card wouldn’t read properly, and I couldn’t make a call even with the instructions the guy at the store gave me. I would’ve went back to the store, but almost all the stores seem closed on Sundays. My host family didn’t exactly know how to help. In a way they almost made it worse, and seemed like they were going to break something from trying to jam it into the phone awkwardly. I still love them though, it was just like Lord, deliver us, please.

I felt like I just couldn’t catch a break. My brain was so full of negative thoughts about myself and also the experience, too, from everything ranging from the weather, to the bugs, to the gaps in my Spanish knowledge. I felt like an outsider.

But, after moping around for a couple hours, my host family invited me to watch a soccer game with them. Not just any soccer game, though. The national championship game of Costa Rica, with Heredia’s home team playing. Now, I don’t know anything about soccer whatsoever, and I know it’s extremely popular in a lot of countries, but I was not expecting the hype levels of Costa Rica when it comes to the sport.

So, we’re watching the game on the TV, and every time Heredia gets the ball, even if it’s going nowhere near the goal, Mayra’s cheering hardcore. Likewise, if they mess up, she’s on their asses about how their passes or their defending sucks. Now, the first half goes by without a goal on either side, and then in the second half, Heredia gets the first goal and Mayra is screaming “goal”, the announcer is screaming “goal”, and I hear cars honking like crazy in the street. Mayra then runs to grab the team flag from somewhere and comes back to the main room and dances around. The same thing happens when Heredia scores a second time with only a few minutes left, so they pretty much had the game in the bag.

To be honest, all their positive attitudes and seeing how excited everyone gets was pretty infectious, and I felt my spirits jump just a bit. Then after the game, Mayra made us some dinner, and told me that we were going to go to the streets to celebrate. I was not expecting what was in store. So we walked to a street corner, and they’d brought a couple team flags, and told me to help wave one and cheer. So I did, and people were filling the streets, either walking or by car, waving flags around, honking, singing, screaming, you name it. For hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. I yelled with my host family until our voices were gone, and life seemed alright again.

 


Day 4 was a super busy one. We had our first official day of classes, and had to get there super early to get our ID cards issued. I was feeling a bit nervous, but better overall after that great night of bonding with my host family. Mayra drove me that morning, and I felt confident that I’d gotten the route to school down. Then, we had some orientation stuff to do, and got pictures taken for our ID cards. Four of us in the program don’t have any morning classes, so we decided to just hang out. The only guy with us, Elias, is actually from Costa Rica, and he showed us around Heredia a bit since we had 3 hours or so to kill.

Heredia truly has some beautiful spots and great food options (my fave). We stopped by a few clothing stores, which seemed cheaper than in the states for a lot of it, except the shoes. The shoe lover in me wept a little, but it’s alright. Then we walked through the central park, which was very pretty, and very chill. Will definitely take some breaks there when I can.

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After the sightseeing, we headed to a cute and cozy creperie and cafe near the university, called Entre Nous. They have a mix of breakfast, lunch and snack options. I opted for a sweet crepe with a mix of fruit, and a tea infusion with mangoes and strawberries. It was pretty decently priced, less than 4,000 colones, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was absolutely delicious. Will for sure be heading back there.

After food it was time to head back to classes. I was nervous for my Latin American Short Story and Essay class, but my teacher is super chill and speaks slowly enough for us, and I could understand about 90% of what he was saying! He also likes to take coffee breaks halfway through the class, since it’s 3 hours long, so we all got some coffee on the house. My hero. As an aside, the coffee here is legit the best I’ve ever had. Even though I’m not a huge coffee person, I could drink it all the time if it were all this good.

That was about all the excitement for that day. Oh, wait, almost forgot the most important part: I made it home and didn’t get lost! Woo!


Day 5 was pretty standard, which I was totally fine with since it seems like we always have a lot going on, and I was tired as heck from walking around town and then walking home.  I told Mayra that and she made me a great breakfast, complete with some gallo pinto. I love rice and beans, though it was my first time having the traditional Costa Rican dish and it’s delicious. I don’t know if a lot of the host mothers cook super well, but Mayra is fantastic, so I’m lucky to have her. Everyone needs a mamá tica in their life. At breakfast she told me I speak Spanish really well, and in fact, better than the other students she’s had stay with her. If that isn’t a confidence boost, I don’t know what is; maybe I underestimate myself too much.

Anyway, I walked to school (and made it there properly!), and then went to my conversation class, which I can tell is really going to challenge me and improve my Spanish, since we can only use Spanish in the classroom, and she has us do a variety of speaking exercises. There are only six of us, so we all get a lot of chance to practice, so I’m hype.

After class, apparently there was a bit of a hiccup with my ID card, and they couldn’t get it to print properly since the computer apparently crashed or something when they tried to make mine, so we had to get that sorted out. It wasn’t awful, but I did miss lunch because of it. I think I’m like a minor-inconvenience-magnet. But aside from that everything was fine. I went to my class with my coffee-fanatic teacher and had a good time, and then went home and Mayra made me some delicious veggie and mushroom pasta to make up for the fact that I didn’t have lunch. She’s way too sweet. I’m going to miss her when I have to go.

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These past few days have taught me a lot about myself, and dealing with new situations. Culture shock really is something that can be controlled if you don’t close yourself off, and if you allow yourself to decompress. It’s not all going to be smooth sailing, but I feel like I’m better equipped to handle whatever comes my way, and I’m ready to keep learning about the culture, language, and myself. Pura vida all the way.

 

 

Costa Rica Adventures – Days 1 & 2

Alright, finally getting more settled in here nearing the end of day 2 of my Costa Rican experience. It still feels a little surreal that I’m actually here and will be for the next five weeks. Surprisingly, I haven’t had any major freak out moments like I thought I might, but hey, there’s always still time for them to show up later! Mostly just joking about that last part. Mostly.

Really though, I’m happy to report that overall it’s been a pretty nice experience so far. Even the process of getting here was really smooth, which was a super pleasant surprise. because I hate dealing with airports half the time for domestic travel, let alone international where you  have to get there at least two hours early and often deal with lines for days. Getting up super early isn’t exactly my thing (probably an understatement), but aside from that, my dad and I made it through LAX easily and with plenty of time to spare.

I wanted to try and catch up on sleep during the five hour flight, but my brain was so wired thinking about everything that was going on. Was my host family going to be chill? Would I totally forget how to talk to them properly? Would I even be able to locate them at the airport? Time seemed to go by way too fast, and after the captain announced that we were about to descend into San Jose, I had to remind myself a few times that remembering to breathe is a good thing.

Immediately after we got off the plane, the humidity smacked me in the face; Nevada life has destroyed all of my wet air tolerance. It didn’t help that it was pouring, but such is life when you travel to a tropical area in the wet season. Once we made it through customs, we found my host mom, Mayra, and her niece waiting for us. And to my surprise, she’s a pretty sharp dresser! I wouldn’t usually walk around with strappy heels in heavy rain, but hey, I can respect wanting to look good. She’s so sweet, too, though once we got the introductions out of the way, she mentioned that she speaks virtually no English. Now, that would’ve made me less nervous under more normal circumstances (well, slightly less), but since my dad doesn’t speak any Spanish, I had to act as a pseudo-interpreter and my nerves combined with my extreme lack of eloquence when speaking Spanish made for a very interesting car ride.

Speaking of an interesting car ride, was anyone else aware of how bad the traffic can get in Costa Rica at peak hours? I wasn’t prepared. When we were trying to drive from the airport, we probably moved less than 500ft in an entire hour. Well maybe it was a little more than that, but not much better. Also, the drivers are . . . intense, to say the least. The roads don’t usually seem very wide, people try to cut around each other all the time, and people seem to be able to park in way more places than in the U.S. They’re also not afraid to honk. Apparently people will honk when they’re annoyed, or grateful, so just lots of beeping going on. We also got a bit lost when trying to find the hotel my dad was going to stay in, so trying to deal with all this in the first couple hours of coming here was quite the experience.

I thought it was really humbling though to see what the limits of my Spanish are, and what I need to work on while I’m here, and it was nice to learn about Mayra and life in Costa Rica a bit. When we finally made it back to her house, she gave me a little tour. I have my own comfortable room and bathroom, and the house is really just cozy with its soft green walls. She made a delicious dinner for me. It was way too much food for me at once, so I wasn’t close to being able to finish it, but she’s a great cook.  File_000 (3)

And she’s still looking stylish in the kitchen. A bit after that, we managed to find the correct hotel for my dad, and we drove him there and said our goodbyes. I’m definitely going to miss him.

Mayra and I chatted a bit more on the way back to her house, and she really tries to help me understand what she’s saying as much as possible, so that makes me feel a bit better about sounding like a five year old. Her husband, Alexis, is a cab driver and was out working late so I wasn’t able to meet him the first day, so that was about all the excitement for day one. Aside from some information overload, it went better than I expected for sure. I got myself unpacked and then tried to get to sleep for the study abroad orientation at the university and my first full day here.

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My new space during my stay here.


Day two also started bright and early at 6AM, which I’ve learned is pretty typical for the Ticos (Costa Ricans). After I got myself dressed and together, Mayra put together some breakfast for me complete with coffee, fresh bread and some fresh, delicious mango. I don’t think I’ve ever really had such fresh produce so that’s been a welcome discovery, especially being a mango fanatic. I was able to meet her husband that morning too, and he was also very sweet and they seemed genuinely interested in learning about me, so I’m really glad I got the family I did. I brought a candle and some chocolates as a gift for them, too, and Mayra really loved them so that also made me feel pretty good. I forgot how to properly say “I’m glad that you like the gift” in the moment, so I felt a little silly, but can’t always have your cake and eat it, too.

After all that, Mayra showed me how to walk to the university. It’s about 15 minutes or so if you don’t have to wait too long to cross the streets. The cars apparently have the right of way here, so it makes me more than a little anxious, but my mamá tica had my back. As a major positive, the view from where she lives is beautiful.

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Once we got there, we were greeted by the other host family moms and students. We were about 25 minutes early so I talked with a few of them. A lot of the other students seemed to be around my level of Spanish, and we all had similar stories about not understanding a lot of what was being said to us. Nothing like bonding over the struggle of language learning!

At the orientation, we went over a lot of basic rules and procedures, received our schedules and learned more about the country, cultural norms and living with our host families. Then we took a break for a lunch and for a tour of the campus. I swear, Heredia has so much natural beauty, and it’s just so vibrant. The university was no exception, and I love how open it is and that it looks so different from my own.

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We also covered all the events that we’ll be having through the program, like some plays, sporting events and city tours, and I’m super hype for those. Thankfully it didn’t start to rain until it was about time to leave, and after all that I went back to Mayra’s house and had some afternoon coffee with her and Alexis. Later we had a bit of an adventure trying to buy me a cheap cell phone to use here, since we didn’t have enough money, but the shop owner let us get one anyway, and I have to bring him the rest of what I owe on Monday. That’ll be quite a time since I don’t remember at all where it is, and people give directions here like “Oh, it’s just x amount away from the church,” but I’m sure I’ll be able to figure things out in time.

Overall, even if I’m still struggling a bit with communicating and understanding how Costa Rica functions, day two was definitely a success, and I’m eager to start my classes on Monday and get my Spanish in gear, and most of all keep challenging myself.