Bethany H. is a 2017 Honors study abroad scholarship recipient. She sends this post from a small town in Costa Rica where she is completing a month-long Meredith College study program.
As a high school senior trying to figure out how to spend the next four years of my life, there were two things I told myself I would never do: attend an all women’s college and study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Luckily, I have a bad habit of ignoring myself. And so I find myself here, sitting in a dimly-lit bedroom in a medium-sized town in a rather small country situated between Nicaragua and Panama. It’s 11:57am and my host mom, Deisy, is heating up some rice, beans, and papaya picadillo for lunch. Over the clanking of dishes, I can hear the TV news anchor in the other room, turned all the way up so abuelito and abuelita, visiting from Río Frío, can hear him.
This is a fairly typical afternoon here; though it never feels rushed, there’s always something going on and there’s always someone visiting. Some days one of my host sisters stops by with her three young kids. José Ángel, who is six, loves playing fuseball (futbolín) and Fabiana, three, likes to pretend she works for her Aunt Natalia’s pool-cleaning business. Baby Sebastian is only six months old, and is endearingly referred to as gordito, or chubby. Later today, around 3pm, María Ángel, another granddaughter, who is sixteen, will come. Since both her parents work, María Ángel spends the afternoons and evenings here at her grandparents’ house. Deisy’s sister, Sara, who lives two houses away, may visit around 4:30 for cafecito, a mid-afternoon snack much like the British “tea”, and one of my host dad Ronald’s nine brothers is also likely to pop in for an hour or two. In addition to family, we’ll likely hear one of Deisy’s many friends call “¡Upe!” at the front gate.
Because I started studying Spanish in sixth grade, verbal communication hasn’t been much of an issue. In fact, when I first arrived in Costa Rica, the biggest adjustment wasn’t anything one might expect: not the change in diet or the daily downpours, not the train barreling down the middle of the street or the motorcycles zooming past my window, not even the thriving population of larger-than-normal insects. It was the sun. The same sun that shines over good ol’ NC, peering brightly through my windows at 4:45am. I was, to say the least, quite unprepared. After nearly three weeks, however, the early mornings have become a norm for all seventeen of us studying here through Meredith College. Even on weekends, we are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 6:30am.
My experiences so far, aside from the sun being so eager to rise, haven’t been nearly as shocking as I expected. Perhaps because of the cultural education I had growing up in Northwest Africa, I entered this study abroad program expecting unfamiliarity, expecting to be thrown out of my comfort zone in ways I hadn’t even thought to plan for. Surprisingly, though I have had to leave my comfort zone, the experience has been more of a gentle push. In an attempt to fend off homesickness and familiarize us with the country, we were kept pretty busy our first week in Costa Rica. Scavenger hunts, outings to the nearby town of Heredia, a trip to visit the basilica in Cartago, and a weekend trip to the rural town of Tucurrique, all helped distract us from our discomfort but also served as an introduction to the country, our new (albeit temporary) home. Of that first week’s activities, visiting Tucurrique left the biggest impression. We had the opportunity to visit a pejivalle (peach palm) farm and got to see how heart of palm is harvested. Apparently eager to for a more authentic experience, I managed to get a thorn lodged in my heel within two hours of arriving and got to have it extracted by our hostess, Lupe, with a pocket knife.
The following Monday was the first official day of classes at the Instituto, which quickly reminded us all of that little qualifying word we’d been ignoring–study abroad. But, being the bright young women we are, we quickly settled into the routine of things, including 24/7 Spanish mode. In fact, the biggest speed bump (or, to use the local term, muerto) ended up being to remember to throw the toilet paper in the trash can and not the toilet bowl. I’ve even gotten a little attached to the piles of white rice and purple beans that always find their way to my plate at meal times. One of the most memorable moments from that second week was when my host mom showed me where to go in case of an earthquake. Because Costa Rica is located on two tectonic plates, earthquakes are quite common–enough so that neighbors will often gather together after the fact to discuss the scale of the tremor (“I say a four.” “No way, that was much closer to a six!”). Fortunately, I haven’t had to use that piece of knowledge. Yet.
Though the month isn’t quite over, I can safely say that studying abroad is one of the best decisions I have made to date. Despite some bumps, and many bugs, I have learned so much about myself and have been able to see huge improvements in both my Spanish listening and oral skills. Living with a host family has given me the chance to experience Costa Rican culture in a very intimate and authentic way, something that could never be recreated in a classroom, and having to navigate my way through public buses and unspoken expectations has greatly increased my confidence. From the dramatic telenovelas to the cows I walk past every day on my way to class, there isn’t a thing I would change about my experience so far. Through the frustrations, the victories, and the butterflies (both figurative and literal), each moment has left me with a little nugget of wisdom to ponder and dissect for years to come.