By Brianna Gunter, Part 1.
In the months leading up to my departure for Costa Rica, I — like so many others before me — busied myself with finding out everything I possibly could about the Central American country (it is in Central America, despite the surprising belief by some of my friends that Costa Rica is an island). I spent hours pouring over websites and books that supposedly told me everything I needed to know, and accordingly I felt pretty well-prepared for my semester-long trip. Now after having actually lived in Costa Rica for that length of time, I can confidently say I was not.
Upon arrival in early January at the Juan Santamaria International Airport, I was distressed to find there was nobody outside holding a sign for Internatial Studies Abroad (ISA), my study abroad program provider. After 20 minutes of turning down cab drivers and wandering awkwardly around clusters of elderly tourists (January is retiree season for Costa Rica), I finally found a piece of paper taped to a wall with “ISA” scribbled in black Sharpie. While debating whether or not to wait by this sketchy looking sign, a Tico (male Costa Rican) came up to me and asked “ISA?” I barely finished nodding when he grabbed my suitcase and started walking quickly down the sidewalk. Not knowing whether he was working for ISA or robbing me, I had no choice but to hurry after him.
It turned out he wasn’t robbing me, but the guy wasn’t working for ISA either. He instead led me to where another ISA student was waiting, and told me to stay there. Long story short, I found myself safely unpacking in my host family’s house after waiting outside the airport for five hours. Note to future study abroad students: it isn’t always best to arrive early at your destination.
Now, you can’t always believe what you read — this blog post being an exception of course — and this was certainly the case with Costa Rica.
For example, I read that Ticas (female Costa Ricans) tend to dress more conservatively because of religious values that run deep across the nation. Right. While it certainly is more common to see a woman in pants instead of shorts, shirts there are skin tight and often lack sleeves. My host mom (the best host mom ever by the way, seriously) was in fact very fond of tube tops and matched them with color-coordinating wedged sandals or heels.
As for deep religious values, it is true that Christianity has a strong hold in Costa Rica. In fact, thanks to Catholic persuasions, it is one of the only “modern” countries where abortion and the Plan B pill are completely illegal. Religion nevertheless remains more of an influence than a practice, and many Ticos do not attend church regularly or identify with a specific religion.
Then there are the dangers to tourists. Most of what I read made it seem like I was going to have to walk around with my money hidden deep in my clothes and have a suspicious eye focused on every passerby. In all honesty, Costa Rica is just like anywhere else in the world where tourists flock. If you act like someone from out of town, you make yourself a target. The same rules apply in New York and Philadelphia (I only say these cities because I know them well, but I’m sure the rules apply to most other places). Don’t fear for your life; just be smart. In Costa Rica of course, it also helps tremendously to speak Spanish.
If there is anything that truly surprised me though, it was the natural beauty of Costa Rica. As corny as it may sound, I never expected it to be so beautiful. Even in my urban location, I could see striking blue skies and green mountains in the background of every direction. Of course, my readings did fail to mention the not-so-beautiful aspects of Costa Rican urban areas. Garbage lines the streets there, and the sidewalks (when there are sidewalks) are absolutely atrocious. If you don’t look where you’re walking, you risk falling about four feet down a random hole in the cement. Yep, those holes sure add to the beauty of Costa Rica. Fortunately though I got so used to the walking around there that hopping over giant sidewalk holes became second nature, allowing for more time staring at the blue sky and mountains.
My experience there was nothing short of incredible though, and in just the first couple weeks I did practically more than I had done in my entire life. It sure wasn’t hard to start liking life there when the initial weeks were filled with activities like bathing in hot springs, rappelling in the rainforest, zip lining through a jungle, swimming in a hidden waterfall and seeing an active volcano up close. As I said aloud my first weekend as I sipped a margarita on a Catamarán boat watching the sun dip swiftly below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, “Now this is why I came to Costa Rica.”
One of the pamphlets I read right before my trip was right about one thing though; my real adventure was only just beginning.
Brianna is Managing Editor at The Signal, The College of New Jersey’s Newspaper.