My semester in Costa Rica could best be equated to coming out of one's shell. Although I loved to travel, trying new foods, seeing new sights, meeting new people, I had a led a pretty pampered existence prior to traveling to the nation which is the size of Massachusetts. Although I had spent the summer in Mexico, a developing nation, I stayed with a host family there that was by all accounts quite well off compared with the majority of the population. By contrast in Costa Rica it was a complete "role reversal." My first Costa Rican host family seemed to barely make ends meet. It was there that I dealt with the realities of no hot showers, small meal portions that offered no nutritional value (thankfully fruit was plentiful and cheap), and cockroaches that could really leave me mentally rattled for how often they were visitors in the house. I studied through a program whose focus was sustainable development, so unlike a study abroad experience in Europe, field trips were solely educational (visits to local cooperatives, a banana plantation that was not Dole i.e. the workers received more than standard wages and less harsh working conditions). Despite the negatives my Costa Rican semester was definitely the highlight of my college years. I don't know if I could do it again almost 10 years later, but it was one of those "young people's things" that I am so happy and fortunate to have experienced. While study abroad programs will vary considerably (others are most likely not as "sustainable development" inclined as mine was), you'll still be living in a developing country and exposed to the realities.
-Did you know any Spanish prior to studying there?
Yes. I had taken Spanish for four years in high school and three semesters in college. My program required all participants to have a solid understanding of Spanish. As it was, I was one of the least proficient students. (I was good but not good enough to be carrying on debates in Spanish regarding the CAFTA-Central American Free Trade Agreement, a controversery at the time.) However, as I mentioned above, programs will vary considerably so there are some that would accept Spanish speaking beginners and conduct courses in English (all of mine were in Spanish).
-If you don't know any Spanish is it possible to get around?
Outside of the classroom, when in tourist areas (i.e. Manuel Antonio, Arenal) you would hear English being spoken. Also, on the Caribbean coast in places like Puerto Viejo and Limon, you would hear a lot of English mixed in with a Caribbean creole being spoken due to the large number of West Indian immigrants that had come to Costa Rica at the turn of the last century to work on the railroads. If you stick to the tourist areas you will be fine with limited to no Spanish skills. But all in all, it's always a good idea to know some Spanish (i.e. the crucial phrases one needs at the bus station, in a restaurant, at a shop) as it will benefit you greatly. A plus-Costa Rican Spanish, I feel, is perhaps the easiest form of Spanish for Americans to understand. Unlike in other Spanish speaking countries where other languages and dialects have mixed in, Costa Rican Spanish is incredibly pure.
-What was the hardest part about studying in Costa Rica?
The conditions. When people travel to Costa Rica as tourists, staying at gorgeous four star beachfront properties, it's easy to forget that the majority of the locals don't live such an existence themselves. In the capital of San Jose, many of the roads and sidewalks are in terrible condition (one has to be careful where they walk lest they fall into an open sinkhole). Public buses range from glossy new to antiquated ones that should have been taken to the bus graveyard decades ago. While growing up, there were certainly bugs in my house (small spiders, pesky flies, ants on occasion), but I can't ever once remember there being a cockroach. I had always equated cockroaches with dirty places and squalid conditions. Any time I saw a cockroach (which was a lot) I would get upset that there was nowhere I could go that didn't have these horrid, disgusting creatures. Even at my second host family's house, one that was a palace in comparison and much cleaner, there were still cockroaches. Living in Costa Rica amongst the locals is not for the faint of heart. But where else are there volcanoes, and verdant fields, and glorious beaches and such friendly people all in one small place?
-Did you ever feel unsafe?
Prior to traveling to Costa Rica I had read a lot about the country's unsavory reputation in regards to safety, especially in the capital city of San Jose where I would be living. I very rarely went out at night but when I did it was always in a group setting. (I wasn't a total loser, it's just that during the internship portion, another girl and I were the only ones to remain in San Jose.) I was asked one time to meet some friends at a dance club but ended up not going as I didn't want to take a taxi by myself that late at night. I took many cabs during the daytime and it was only with one cabbie where I truly felt harm might come to me if I didn't just pay him and get the heck out of the taxi. (The meter displayed one rate, the cab driver said a much higher fare, I protested and his manner immediately changed to menacing.) Many times I had occassion to journey deep into the heart of the Central Valley where I attempted to intern at an orphanage. This involved two bus rides and then, in the heart of this small town, waiting for a taxi to take me near to the base of the orphanage. (One time I shared a taxi with three other people, now THAT was a new experience.) From what I've read, foolish choices and being impaired are usually the main reasons why harm comes to travelers and study abroad students.
-Would you recommend studying abroad in Costa Rica to others?
Yes. Although there is no shortage of Spanish speaking destinations for college students, Costa Rica is unique. While I would certainly recommend studying abroad in Spain (which will be covered next in the spotlight series), Spain in reality is only a small part of the Spanish speaking world. I think it's all the more imperative to learn and becomes entrenched in the Latin American world. Costa Rica is an extremely inexpensive country for college students and simply put, offers so much in return to those that walk through its doors.
-Would you do it again if you had the chance?
Yes, if I was 19 again I definitely would. I can't say the same with nearing almost 30! But for a "young person" it's an exhilarating destination.
For anyone interested, I studied with the Institute for Central American Development Studies, whose website you can access here (they have a variety of programs and not all for just college students).
Anything I didn't cover? Feel free to ask!
My reward-a gorgeous vista after a slightly
strenuous hike in Manuel Antonio
More in this series!