How do I even begin to write about my incredible experience in Costa Rica? I did so many things, learned so much about Spanish and Costa Rican culture, and also grew a bit as a person. Originally I meant to write a post for each of the three weeks of my study trip but that didn’t happen, so this post will have to serve as a summary of my time in Costa Rica. I will reflect on more specific aspects of the trip at late times.
When I signed up for the USAC Puntarenas Study Abroad Program I had three main goals:
- Re-learn how to speak Spanish
- Experience Latin American culture and immerse myself in it
- Have fun taking a Latin American Dance Class
I would say I have accomplished all of those goals. I can speak pretty good Spanish again, even if verb tenses get a little iffy at times. My conversational Spanish may have even exceeded the level I was at 4.5 years ago when I took my last Spanish class!
Thanks to living with a host family, I definitely got to experience Latin American culture in a way I couldn’t when I went to Puerto Rico for rain forest ecology trip.
The dance class was a lot more work than I was expecting! I sweat a lot, and there were definitely times of frustration. However, I feel confident that I will be better prepared to dance with people the next time there’s a Sunset Salsa event in Iowa City!
A New Culture
Other than traveling to Puerto Rico for a week my senior of college, I have never been to a Latin American country/ region. It was a wonderful experience living with a host family and becoming immersed in Costa Rican culture, even if living with a host family isn’t always the easiest (survival tips coming soon!).
Tico Time is definitely a thing. Most Latin American cultures are much less time oriented than people from other countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan. It is not unusual for someone to be 20 minutes late to a coffee date. Classes and business appointments are usually the exception, though some students in the beginner English class we visited did come almost an hour late that day. I am naturally a very punctual person. If I am not early, I am late. While I held on to that for my classes, I tried to reassure myself that it was okay if I hung out a little later with friends before heading back to my host family’s place for dinner.
There is also a much stronger sense of community in Puntarenas, Costa Rica compared to the United States. During New Year’s Eve everyone was outside on the street or on the beach, grilling meat and celebrating with their families. It felt even more interconnected than the 4th of July celebrations I experience in the Midwest. People also spend a lot of time relaxing in the shade outside their homes, probably due to the lack of air conditioning in a lot of houses.
I was surprised at how naturally I was able to slip back into speaking Spanish when I arrived in Costa Rica. I had spoken Spanish maybe 3 or 4 times over the past 4 years so I was relieved to find I could still communicate with locals, even if my grammar was horrible. My taxi driver from the airport even told me I spoke well!
The biggest challenge I faced, aside from re-acquiring my ability to speak and listen to Spanish, was getting rid of some of my habits from when I studied in Spain. In Spain they use “vale” (pronounced ba-lay) all the time to mean “okay.” In Costa Rica, not so much (really, not at all). They do use “okay”, so by the end of my third week I was using that a little more, even though it felt weird to not say “vale”.
Of course there were times when my host family and I tried to speak to each other and we couldn’t understand what the other was saying. Either they would use words or phrases I wasn’t familiar with or I would end up speaking gibberish when I tried to express a more complicated thought. But at least I tried!
Becoming (Mostly) Fearless
One of the unexpected advantages to studying abroad in Costa Rica 6 years after my semester in Spain is it is easier for me to see how much I have changed in those 6 years. Back in 2011, I was shy which was reflected in my hesitancy when speaking with my host mom and my discomfort with initiating social time with my fellow students.
Now, I know longer consider myself shy, though I do still have a little bit of social anxiety. I made sure to start conversations with my host mom instead of waiting for her to initiate conversation. I also talked to as many different people as I could during my first week in Costa Rica in order to get to know people and make connections.
I am no longer the picky eater I once was in high school.
When I feel nervous or afraid, I push past it such as when I swam in the pool at the Montezuma Cascade or ziplined in Monteverde. I am no longer afraid of the fear I feel when doing something new. However, I still refuse to go on a roller coaster. That’s where I draw the line.
Traveling is the best way to conquers fears, because you learn some things are not as frightening as you first thought. More importantly, you learn ways to cope with yours fears and push past them rather than running from them. I embrace my fears, because after I conquer them I have such a strong sense of accomplishment and I feel like there isn’t anything I can’t do.
I still have so much to write about regarding this trip, but all of this sums up my thoughts/feelings regarding my time in Costa Rica. I look forward to reflecting more on the things I learned/ saw and I can’t wait until the next adventure!