I was supposed to go to Cuba. That had always been the plan, ever since I learned that my college was affiliated with a study abroad program that offered a semester in La Habana (Havana). But then the ludicrous administration of President George W. Bush basically stopped all American educational programs in Cuba including the one affiliated with my college. So my dream of studying in Cuba, being the envy of many wanderlusting individuals, was all of a sudden not happening (Bush did this literally the semester before I would have applied, which made the wound hurt all the more).
And so this is the long way of explaining how I ended up in Costa Rica, a country never really on my radar. But as my college was small, the number of study abroad program affiliations was even smaller and my choices were limited. So off to Central America I went.
The focus of the organization I studied with was sustainable development and ecology-two things that were never really my “thing.” But the transfer process was seamless and the tuition was the same as if I were on campus, so while all of the Northern part of the United States was in the throes of winter at the end of January, I left for Costa Rica.
The first month I felt like I was drowning…every day
The program lasted three months-the first one consisted of classes, the second and third was when everyone went off and did an internship. And when I say classes, I mean the most intensive classes ever. I would be up around 7 in the morning and some days not return to my host mom’s house until almost 12 hours later. At that point, my Spanish was elementary at best. Sure, I had four years of high school Spanish and three semesters of college level Spanish classes, but it’s a completely different ball game when you’re taking college classes in a foreign language and you’re NOT a native speaker. My literature teacher terrified me (she was big and menacing looking) although I should have known I was screwed when prior to even traveling to Costa Rica, I learned that there was a required reading, a famous book in Costa Rican literature complete with TONS of idioms, the worst thing ever for someone who’s not a native speaker (Mamita Yunai was the book). I couldn’t remotely keep up with class discussions in my political science class nor contribute anything. Crying at night was the new normal.
I was confronted with the stark, harsh realities of what it meant to live below the poverty line
My first experience with a host family was in Mexico and I truly lucked out with them-besides all of them being wonderful people, they were also quite well off by Mexican standards. Although literature I had received from my study abroad program in Costa Rica warned that some of the host families had very little, I (naively) didn’t think I’d end up in one of those situations. Well, I did. My first host family consisted of a single mom and her two kids. It was a nightmare situation which you can read more about by clicking here. However, lack of food, cockroaches and no hot water (this was utterly terrible in a place like San Jose since no, it does not feature a tropical climate…ever), shaped my life on a daily basis. I ultimately changed host families, not because of not having those things but issues with the family dynamics. The month that I lived with them was a hard and sobering time (on top of the extreme stress I experienced with my demanding school schedule).
I survived “unscathed”
While for most people, Costa Rica is a tropical paradise where they spend an idyllic week immersed in their tourist, four star everything, I lived as the locals do and saw another side of Costa Rica, one that does not make the tourist guidebooks or travel blogs. For three months I lived in the capital of San Jose, a city that many tourists stay in only while on their way to other places in the country. The city has a bad reputation on a personal safety front. Nothing was more frightening than being told by my host mom shortly after arriving about a foreign student who had been assaulted a street over by a man who also lived in the neighborhood; he had been watching her and knew her schedule. Or reading in the newspaper about a couple of tourists who had been pistol whipped at a bus terminal I had been just at the week before. Although I had one time where I truly felt at risk with a taxi driver, for the most part I never had issues and for that I’m still thankful 10 years later. Sure, I got stared at endlessly, was intriguing to taxi drivers who just had to talk with the extranjera (foreigner), but I never felt that my life was at risk. This I attribute to always using common sense and never putting myself in compromising situations. I rarely went out at night, for as no one lived right near me to share cabs, I just never felt comfortable taking a cab alone in San Jose at night. It may seem silly to some as in I missed out on “lots of cool times,” but I don’t regret it.
I stepped out of my shell but in some ways, not enough
I did tons of stuff in Costa Rica I never had before (thankfully, no out houses were involved)-zip lining (I’ve never done it since but oh my god, when I was doing it what an amazing rush-I went in the Arenal area); swimming in a waterfall (La Catarata in La Fortuna); riding a horse (this was a terrible experience as my horse just did not want to ever go); killing a plethora of cockroaches (this was lo peor, the worst).
But I also stayed in the “cocoon” that I had created for myself. When it came time for picking an internship site, I chose to stay where I was, in the capital of San Jose. I’d always lived in a city and the idea of living for two months in a rural area in a developing country just frightened me (this was especially confirmed when a girl in my study abroad program told me how her Nicaraguan host family only had an outhouse and how one night when she went out to use it, in the pitch black mind you, she shone her flashlight and saw it was completely filled with cockroaches!!). I do, however, regret not trying for something in a Nicaraguan city (my program also had sites throughout that country). Although I only spent a couple of nights there, I could see how strong and rich the Nicaraguan culture was compared to that in Costa Rica.
Staying in San Jose meant I got to have more time with my incredible second host family, but I still look back with regret and what ifs on occasion.
Author’s note-to read part II click here.