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siempre hay una primera vez

Time November 27th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Siempre hay una primera vez.  There is a first time for everything.  This semester has marked a lot of firsts for me:

–          Flying alone (actually, traveling alone in general)

–          Seeing the ocean

–          Immediately following, stepping on a sea urchin

–          White-water rafting

–          Bungee jumping

–          Surfing

–          Seeing mountains (and living in a place that is not totally flat)

–          Waterfall rappelling

–          Snorkeling

–          First earthquake (and second…and third…)

–          Saving baby turtles

–          Seeing a volcano (three, actually)

–          Taking classes entirely in Spanish

–          Living in a culture different than the US (2 cultures, actually, if you count Italy earlier this year)

–          Experiencing major events, like the Olympics and the US elections, outside of the US

–          Experiencing a tropical winter, aka the rainy season

I don’t think people give study abroad enough credit – it is really difficult.  I spent months at my University planning and fighting to be able to make the semester feasible.  I lived for 5 months with a family that has been wonderful in every possible way, and I love them dearly, but at the end of the day they are not my family.  I met a lot of great friends here, but take 18 random people from around the United States and the odds are not good that many people will find their new BFFs.  I spent a lot of my hard-earned money this semester without being able to work and be earning money (basically, I had to learn how to take a vacation).  I worked my butt off in all of my classes to overcome the language barrier and at the same time maintain my GPA.  I say all this NOT to say that it was a bad experience, because it was amazing, NOR to say that study abroad is not worth it, because it absolutely is!  I say this because I wanted to try to express to you the complexity of the semester.  When I get back, and people ask me how it was, we will talk about the positive parts, the highlights, which are the most exciting parts and what we should talk about.  But I wanted to try to shed a little light on the “behind the scenes” of study abroad – what you don’t see in the photos, or read in the blog, or hear in the stories.  The real part.

I really do not want to leave Costa Rica, but I do so knowing I had the time of my life.  I had the opportunity to intimately know another culture, and I fell in love with it.  Sincerely I have felt very welcomed by all of the Costa Ricans I met here, and I have truly loved the experience.

At the same time, it is time to come home.  I am looking forward to seeing my friends and family again, and to coming home to a Minnesota winter with snow, but more than anything I will appreciate being in a culture where I fit in and know exactly how to act without having to be constantly observant of the situation.  To me, the United States is like a crazy uncle – it is not perfect, it has its faults, it might drive me crazy at times, but at the end of the day it is family and it is home and it is my country and I love it.

I feel I have grown in so many ways this semester.  Most obviously, my Spanish has improved immensely.  I am more independent and confident in my decisions.  I think I found out more who I am as a person and am more confident in that person.  I am more patient and less easily stressed out.  This blog title is “Pura Vida Way of Life” (in the URL) and now I think I am more able to explain to you what “Pura Vida” means, or, at least, what it means to me.  It means “Qué será, será” (what will be, will be).  It serves as a constant reminder to keep perspective on what is important in life and what I cannot control.  It reminds me that my life is so incredibly good, and I have been so incredibly blessed; it would be selfish and ungrateful to not choose to be happy!




Time October 26th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This past weekend was one of the highlights of this whole semester for me.  It was the weekend of our tortugero, or “save the turtles” trip.   I am writing it in an as-it-happened format because I decided that will be the least confusing.  Also, there might be more pictures later of the baby turtles and of the turtle eggs.  Someone took them on her night camera, so when she posts them on Facebook I will post them here.

The turtle place is literally right on the beach.  It is a very rustic setting – no electricity, no hot water, no screens on the windows, and obviously no air conditioning.  The food is basic and nutritious but very bland.  I am not opposed to rice and beans, but the rice and beans they served here just had no taste.  However, the roof was rain-proof, which is a definite necessity for Costa Rica.  Our group just went for the weekend, but they have longer-term volunteers that are there for anywhere from a few weeks to a year.

When we got there, the people who run the place explained the work they do there (more about that later) and why turtles are endangered.  When turtles are pregnant they swim onto a beach and try to find a safe place to build a nest and lay their eggs (usually at least 70 or so).  Natural predators (just about any animal that can dig) a lot of times will attack the turtle and eat the eggs, or dig up the nest and eat the eggs if the turtle has already gone.  However, I guess turtle eggs are also valuable, so some people steal the eggs to sell (my guess is that people maybe want to buy the turtles as pets, but I’m not totally clear on that point).  Also, the region where we were was the region affected most by the huge earthquake a few weeks back.  Because of the earthquake, the tides changed, so on that particular beach there was also the problem of the turtles not creating their nests far enough above the tide – so the tide would just sweep the nest away.

The first night I was on beach patrol.  A few of us went out with one of the regular volunteers at 9pm, which is when they had determined that the tide would just have finished being high tide.  You can’t put on bug spray starting 2 hours before you do anything with the turtles, because if they smell it they will not lay their eggs and instead go back into the ocean.  But at night and with the ocean wind it was cool enough to wear long sleeves and long pants, so that wasn’t actually a problem.  Oh, and you can’t really have any light except red light and you have to be silent, for the same reason (that it would scare away the turtles).  So we walked along the beach in the dark looking for turtle tracks, and when we found some we followed the tracks away from the water.  The turtle had already gone, but we found the nest.  Our guide dug a hole, and I got to put the turtle eggs into the bag to take to the hatchery.  There were 75 eggs.  After the eggs were bagged we carried them to the hatchery and created a turtle nest there.  The idea is to recreate the same conditions for the eggs, but in an environment safe from predators.  Then we kept patrolling for a few more hours.  That was the first night.

Then I went to bed around 12:30.  At this point I should mention that they strongly recommend bringing mosquito nets because there are tons of mosquitoes at night.  Nobody in our group has a mosquito net, so we were going to just go without.  I really lucked out, though, because the camp had a couple of extras and I happened to be around when they mentioned that.  So I had a mosquito net for both nights, and I made it back home without a single mosquito bite.  Quite impressive.

Then we woke up at 6am to carry sand bags.  In the hatchery, after a nest hatches they have to clean out the area.  So we had to dig a 5-foot hole, bring the old sand to the sand pile, and then go down to the beach to get fresh sand, and carry that sand back to fill the holes we had dug.  We didn’t have to walk that far, maybe 30 meters, but it was uphill back from the beach.  We worked from 6am-8am, then ate breakfast, and then worked for another 2 hours.  In total we dug and filled 6 holes.

Then we got free time for a few hours, and it was actually sunny, so we went swimming.  I didn’t stay out too long because I didn’t want to burn.  It worked!

Also, everyone is signed up for 2-hour hatchery shifts (throughout the day and night).  The hatchery is where the human-constructed turtle nests are, and they have mesh cages around them to keep out animals.  The hatchery shift people are responsible for checking every nest cage for hatchings and also for animals, especially crabs, every 15 minutes.

So, fast forward to the second night.  First I worked the hatchery shift, but with no action.  Then I went out with night patrol again at 9pm.  Almost right away we found a turtle laying eggs.  That was even more exciting than the nest from the night before because the turtle was actually there!  As we were carrying the eggs back to the hatchery, we found another turtle building her nest.  To build the nest, first she found a spot in the sand she was content with.  Then, with her front flippers she starts digging away sand, sort of in a breaststroke swimming motion (I think that’s the right stroke, that goes away from your body horizontally).  Turtles are super strong – she was flinging sand like 10 feet away!  Also, she builds the nest super deep, so after awhile her head disappears into the hole while she keeps digging.  Then she sits down to lay her eggs.  At this point the guide carefully comes up behind her and digs out from under her so we can access the eggs as she is laying them.

I got to sit with the second turtle (who was really big – I think something like 65 cm across and 70 long) and pick up her eggs as she laid them.  That was really cool.  She was laying 2 and 3 at a time, and I was catching them as they dropped (because it’s better for the baby turtles the less impact they experience).  In total she laid 106 eggs.  It was amazing.  Turtle eggs are really cool.  The outside is kind of the texture of a water balloon, and they can take little dents here and there, but they aren’t totally squishy.  They aren’t totally solid like our eggs either – normally, the eggs fall maybe 6 or 8 inches into the nest as the mother is laying them, so they have to be kind of durable.  Anyway, so after she laid the eggs she was supposed to get up and bury the nest and go back to the sea, but she must have been sick or injured or maybe just tired, because she sat there for over an hour.  So I sat with her, and we bonded.  Eventually she did get up and close the nest.  Closing the nest means filling it with sand and then basically stomping on it with all her weight.  Then she very slowly, and with a few rest breaks, made it back to the sea.

Wow this is a long blog post, but the night is still young.  It’s maybe 11:30pm at this point.  We are carrying the eggs back to the hatchery (with urgency because they had to sit out for so long), and we run into the hatchery group.  They are carrying a bucket of baby turtles to be released into the ocean.  They inform us that there are 4 more nests already hatched.  So we hurry back to the hatchery and help the baby turtles!

What happens when they hatch is they break out of their eggs underground, and then dig their way up to the surface.  So you see their little head poking out of the sand, and then their body, and then more and more and more come.  To release them, we had to get a huge bucket, fill the bottom with wet sand, pick up the turtles one by one and put them in the bucket, carry the bucket back to camp, measure the shell size and weigh 10 of the turtles, and then bring them down to the ocean.  It was really amazing, and they were soo cute.

So after all that action I got to bed around 1:30, and then we all got up at 6 to pick up trash on the beach.  After a 5-hour bus ride back to Heredia, I am exhausted but the work was so special and satisfying that it was totally worth it.


se diga sal, diga sol!

Time October 10th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The title, “se diga sal, diga sol,” is Costa Rica’s equivalent of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”  (sal = salt, sol = sun)  I am using it this week because my computer has died.  Hopefully not permanently, but at least until I get back to the States and my dad can take a look at it and work his computer magic…  It’s frustrating because I have to plan out more when I am going to do my homework – there’s a computer lab at school, and my family has a computer that they said I can use, so I’m not in crisis mode.  However, I am thinking this means no more Skype or TV shows and limited Facebook.  BUT, on the “sol” side, that means I’m forced a little more to interact with my family and watch Costa Rican TV and take advantage of what little time I have left here!  See?  Digo sol!!

Quiz!!  Which of the following is not a real word in Spanish?  (NO cheating!!  Dictionaries not allowed!!)  The answer is a couple paragraphs down.

a)      banano

b)      papaya

c)       mango

d)      avocado

I am finally a legal student in Costa Rica!  When we entered the country we were granted tourist visas, which are valid for 90 days.  This past Thursday, on day 87 of being in the country (yes, it really was that close), I finally received my official student visa.  This after 2 trips to the bank, 3 trips to San José, and countless hoops to jump through.  This most recent trip to the visa office, I was nervous because previous groups had said their appointment to take an ID photo and receive the printed card took over 5 hours.  Luckily, ours only took about an hour and a half.  That’s really good for Tico time!  Plus, by this point I always bring a book or homework or at least my iPod to keep me occupied.

Yesterday my host mom served “olla de carne,” which is a very typical Costa Rican soup with beef, potatoes, corn, and rice.  Normally you would just put everything in a bowl, but she serves me everything separate (I think in case I don’t like something) so I got a whole bowl of the soup and meat, a little bowl of rice, and a huge plate of potatoes.  Now, a lot of the potatoes are really vegetables, but they all have a pretty potato-ey consistency so from that perspective it is still a huge plate of potatoes.  I think I counted 8 different types: choyote, a peppery potato, a sweeter potato, another sweeter potato, a huge potato with a non-edible skin, a grey potato that was surprisingly tasty, a purple potato that I really didn’t care for, and – my favorite – yam.  So I sat down to eat with abuela, she finished and left, then came my host aunt and siblings, they finished and left, and then my host mom sat down to eat.  This whole time I am just sitting there plugging away at my plate of potatoes.  They must just think I am the slowest eater.

Okay, the answer to the quiz question above is d) avocado.  The word for avocado in Spanish is aguacate.  I found this out because my host dad told me he was eating an aguacate sandwich.  To me it looked a lot like avocado, so I asked him what the difference is between avocado and aguacate.  (In Costa Rica they have a million fruits and veggies, and a lot of them are slight variations of each other, for example the guava/guayaba/guanábana family…)  No, he replied, it’s aguacate.  Well okay, I responded, but what’s the difference?  Finally I got it – avocado IS aguacate.  Well there you go.

The weekend before last we did a day trip to Volcán Irazu, which is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica.  I had pictures, but since my computer is broken I can’t access them to post.  Volcán Irazu is famous for erupting on March 19, 1963, the day JFK started a state visit in Costa Rica.  Its most recent eruption was in 1994.  That was almost 20 years ago, but a lot of the national park is still volcanic ash and there is not a lot of growth where the eruption was.  It was pretty amazing to me that 20 years after the fact, there is just starting to be little tufts of grass on the ground.  That just goes to show the power of volcanic lava.


bungee jumping!!

Time September 24th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So I went bungee jumping this past weekend!

Here is the video of my jump:

There is really not much to say because it is just so amazing on its own, but it was UNBELIEVABLE.


Well I have now celebrated my second independence day of the year – September 15 was Costa Rican Independence Day!  On September 15, 1921 Spain was defeated in the Mexican War for Independence.  At this point Guatemala declared independence for all of Central America – none of the Central American countries actually fought Spain for independence.  There was a brief internal struggle in Costa Rica over where the capital should be, Cartago or San José, but aside from that it was a peaceful independence.

It was interesting to see how they celebrated the day here.  The Parque Central and a lot of buildings around Heredia were decorated with Costa Rican flags and other patriotic decorations.  On Friday during the school day, my 7-year-old host brother’s class went door-to-door in pairs to talk about Independence Day.  They just stated basic facts, but who can resist cute 7-year-olds at the door?  Saturday morning there was a huge parade through Heredia.  It consisted of every single grade school, middle school, and high school in the city.  I’m not exaggerating – every school has spent weeks preparing a marching band, baton twirlers, etc. and before each band in the parade was a banner with the name of the school.  The parade lasted 3 hours.  Also, in Parque Central at nights all week there have been various celebrations, dances, music, etc.  Costa Ricans sure know how to celebrate!  One thing missing from their celebrations was fireworks – they said that sometimes there are fireworks, but it isn’t a tradition like it is in the US.  To me, the night didn’t feel complete without a fireworks show :(

Adorable little girl in traditional Costa Rican attire.

The stilt figures

Kids marching with heavy-looking flags…

My host sister Nicole in the parade!

Then last Sunday Heredia the soccer team played in Heredia!  So of course I went.  I kind of feel like it is a Latin American rite of passage to go to a soccer game.  It was tied, 1-1, near the end of the game, and the other team was doing that stalling thing where they pretend to be hurt every time they get near another player to run the clock out.  So the Heredia goalie did a goal kick, I guess before the ref blew the whistle.  So the ref comes over and gives him a yellow card.  The goalie must have said something, because almost immediately the ref changed it to a red card.  Of course at this point the entire crowd is furious, throwing food and garbage and spitting through the fence (they can’t throw coins, because they confiscate all the coins on the way in).  Heredia subs in a new goalie, and play continues…for like 30 more seconds until the game ended.  The whole way home my family ranted about how awful the ref was for that call.  Personally I didn’t think it was that big of a deal – would Heredia really have scored in those 30 seconds anyway?  I was more upset that it ended as a tie.

Go Heredia!!! The crowd looks calm now, but don’t let them fool you — they get angry fast.

me, my host sister Sofia, and my host brother Daniel before the game

Also, I realized I forgot to tell y’all about Sarchí!  First some background info: Costa Rica is known for its oxcarts.  They were traditionally used to transport coffee from the fields to the ports – because of the mountains and the abundant rain, the roads were often muddy and dangerous.  The oxcarts were designed to make the voyage safer – the wheels don’t have spokes, so mud can’t get caught, and they were built strong enough to withstand bad weather.  Anyway, today the oxcarts are a cultural sign of the country.  They are known for their unique paint designs, and are hand-painted.  We visited Sarchí as a class a few weeks back.  Sarchí is the town where they still make and hand-paint oxcarts of every shape and size.  It is also the home of the world’s largest oxcart.


The largest carreta (oxcart) in the world!

Close-up of the wheel of the carreta – it’s all hand-painted.

One of the artists hard at work painting a wheel.


the Caribbean sun

Time September 7th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Last weekend we went to Puerto Viejo (translates to “Old Port”).  It is a town on the Caribbean.  The Caribbean is interesting because it has a strong African influence, so it is a very different culture than the Pacific coast and inland areas.  For instance, we went out dancing, and a lot of the music was Afro-Caribbean – heavy percussion, calypso-style, etc.  Most of the restaurant owners, locals, etc. spoke English as well as Spanish.  While this is probably because beach towns are fairly touristy, I think it also has something to do with the history – Great Britain colonized places like Jamaica, and then workers from Jamaica were brought to Costa Rica and Panama to build train tracks and the Panama Canal towards the end of the 19th century.  So the Caribbean has more tradition of speaking English than other places in Central/South America.

Anyway, Puerto Viejo was really cool!  It was basically one main street, with restaurants and shops on both sides, and the ocean/beach literally 20 feet away.  We rented bikes to get to the beach and just spent our whole Saturday there.  I am learning many things about the ocean.  Like, if waves don’t break, you can just ride them/float in them like in a wave pool.  However, if the wave breaks (which is where you see the white part), you have to dive under it or you will get shot backwards with the wave.  Also, getting saltwater in your nose and eyes really hurts.  I did get a little sunburned, but considering I spent about six hours at the beach it’s really not that bad.  Also, we found a shady spot to put our stuff, so it was nice to be able to get out of the sun.  Also, I got some sea coral!  (Legally, of course – it was already dead on the beach.)

Someone asked me about the bugs here.  There are mosquitoes; however, there are supposed to be less mosquitoes in the rainy season (which is now) than in the dry season.  I would have thought it would be the other way around, but I’m not complaining!  All the windows in my house have screens, but I still kill 2 or 3 mosquitoes in my room each day.  If there is one when I am going to bed I usually put on bug spray, because I have woken up with a few massive bug bites.  I have also seen a few bigger bugs (beetle/cockroach-type things) but really just a few and never in my bedroom.  There are also bugs like spiders, ants, flies, etc. that don’t really bother me.  There are ants all over the place, but they don’t bite.  Well, the ones in Puerto Viejo were like fire ants, but the ones in Heredia just mind their own business.  Fun fact: if you touch an ant, the other ants will smell human on it, assume it is a predator, and attack it until it dies.  The good news is that in addition to those bugs, there are also butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds, etc.  Costa Rica has 1250 different species of butterflies.  I think the coolest one I have seen is clear – the outline is brown but the wings are totally seethrough.  Of course, the blue ones are also really pretty.

I also got a question about how Costa Ricans view the US or people from the US.  It is a really complicated answer.  In my culture and development course, we have been talking about Latin American economies over the past century, but in doing so we have to talk about the US and European economies as well, since they affect smaller countries like Costa Rica so much.  In that class, the professor has been pretty unbiased.  Certainly, some economic actions have had better effects than others on Latin America, but I as a US student in the class don’t feel ostracized or blamed for something the US might have caused.  Another thing is that the US has intervened and/or invaded quite a few Central and South American countries in the past, and that is looked upon a bit more as interference.  However, they also talk about the dictators themselves in the countries, which has less to do with the US.

A lot of people I have met really like the US though.  My little host brother, Andrés, told me he really wants to live in the US when he grows up.  He showed me his state quarter collection – he has 4 quarters.  It was really cute.  The kids were all fascinated when I explained what playing in the snow is like, so I think part of the draw of the US to them is the variety of climates.  My host aunt is traveling to the US this week for work, and everyone in the family is making a list of things they want her to buy while she is there (clothes, makeup, drugstore-type stuff, etc.).

I think it helps too that Costa Rica does not have a military – they abolished it in 1949.  So any diplomatic relations they have are peaceful.  The US has not done anything bad specifically to Costa Rica like they have with other countries.  (For example, Panama used to be part of Colombia, until the US seized the land, controlled the Panama Canal, and eventually Panama got independence.  So Colombia still associates the US with that.)  I think if a country hasn’t had a bad history or doesn’t have a “grudge” against the US, there is less anti-US sentiment today.


“we laugh so we don’t get old”

Time August 29th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Hello everyone!  Below are some pictures of my house.  (I didn’t take pictures of other rooms inside my house, because I didn’t want to make my host family uncomfortable.  If there is interest I can try to get some shots.)  My host family situation is a bit complicated, but I am going to do my best to explain it here.  I live with my host mom and dad, and my mom’s mom (abuela).  They have 3 children, all grown, all of whom live in adjacent houses.  My host dad has something like 9 sisters, and they all live right next door as well.  My host parents’ kids are each married and have children of their own (ages 7-17).  I refer to the actual kids, who are technically my host nieces and nephews, as my host siblings.  All the families basically live in a little village – there’s a gate, a long driveway, and all the houses share a common yard.  It is a really fun setup because there are always people around to talk to or hang out with, but I do always have the option to stay in my room if I need a little bit of peace and quiet.

People here seem to be fascinated with my last name, Kaczynski.  I thought people in the Midwest had problems spelling and pronouncing it, but that’s nothing compared to here.  The first attempt usually sounds something like “kahk-SEEN-skeee” (with very separated syllables), which is not too far off really, but it doesn’t improve after that.  My history professor was very excited about the Polishness of it, and asked me all sorts of questions, like when my parents moved to the US, what my favorite Polish foods are, and whether I can speak Polish.  I think my answers might have disappointed him just a little bit.  When we went to apply for our student visas, the visa officers processing my forms were also very amused by my last name.  They asked me how to pronounce it and repeated it multiple times until they had it more-or-less right.  Then, as they were typing in the rest of my information, they would say it to themselves and then just chuckle a little bit.  It was like the punchline of a joke, but I feel like I kind of missed the joke…or maybe I was the joke…

One VERY big cultural point here is the use of the terms “America” and “American.”  In the United States, “America” is pretty much synonymous with “United States,” and an “American” citizen is the same as a US citizen.  However, in Latin America (and I would think South America as well), if you tell someone you are American they will say, well I am too.  To them, (and personally I think this makes more sense anyway), “America” is the entire 2 continents.  There is North America, Latin/Central America, and South America, but it is all America.  Honestly, I chalk it all up to a language difference, and here’s why: in Spanish, there is a word for being from the US: estadounidense.  In English, I seriously cannot think of a word: United Statesian?  United Statesese?  There isn’t really a good way to say it in English, so we say “American.”  From a Latin-American perspective, I understand how they could interpret that to mean we think we are the only Americans, but from an English-speaker perspective, I understand that there really is no good alternative.  However, I have been trying to catch myself every time I am about to say “America” or “American” and find an alternative.

Almost every night at my house, my host mom plays cards with her sister and with abuela, and when I can I join them.  I have noticed that they tend to laugh their way through everything – dropped a plate?  whoops!  Burned the food? – shoot!  Didn’t preheat the oven? – oh well!  I had chalked up their slap-happiness to lack of sleep until last night when my host mom – mid laugh – turned to me and commented that they were crazy, right?  I agreed, and then she said something which to me was really profound: “we laugh so we don’t get old.”  I thought, wow.  She’s right.  Why be sad and tired and stressed when you could just laugh it off?

The other day, when I was walking home from the U, the sun was shining and it was raining at the same time.  The Ticos I was with told me that the saying goes in Costa Rica that when there is sun and rain at the same time, it is the Virgen de los Ángeles (the same Virgin Mary for which there was a procession to Cartago a few weeks back) smiling down on us.  Aww.

Sad fun fact:  They  most certainly do not use the Oxford comma here.  I am a big proponent of the Oxford comma.  I have gotten corrected on all my papers.  It is disappointing.


Monteverde – on top of the world

Time August 22nd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This past weekend I had Friday off, so we went to Monteverde, which is basically a national park on top of a mountain in Costa Rica.  There was so much to do there – we could have spent a week and still not have gotten to everything.  It is a 5-hour bus ride from San Jose, and the bus left at 6:30 on Friday morning, so I got up at 3:45 to get there on time.  WAY too early, but definitely worth it.

On Friday afternoon we went for a hike in the Cloud Forest.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  The trails were clear enough that we couldn’t have gotten off the trail, but narrow enough that it really felt like you were walking through a forest.  Everything was really, really green.  Also, when it rains, the plants like moss and leaves capture the water drops, which made everything glisten.  When we got to the overlook viewpoint, I felt like I was on top of the world.  There were tree-covered mountains and valleys as far as you could see, and we were literally in the clouds (hence the name, Cloud Forest).  It was magical.

Saturday was an action-packed day.  First, we did the Extremo Canopy Tour, which included 13 long ziplines, rappelling down a 70-foot tree, a Tarzan swing (which was enhanced by a family of monkeys in a nearby tree), and the Superman zipline (exactly what it sounds – they attach your feet and your waist to the zipline so you are facing the ground).  My favorite out of all of this was the Superman, because it was really long with an incredible view and, once again, right through clouds.

After ziplining, we had a quick lunch and dashed off to Canyoning, which is basically rappelling down waterfalls.  That was quite difficult, but absolutely incredible.  After a few warm-up waterfalls, we rappelled down a 114-foot waterfall.  It was challenging because the rocks were slippery, and more than once I slammed into the side of a rock.  The other thing was, we were soaking wet, and it was raining (which, they assured us, is perfectly safe unless there is lightning), and so it was really cold.  But worth every penny, for sure.

Finally, Saturday night we went on a night hike.  Our guide was super-knowledgeable and very passionate about the plants and animals in the forest.  The hike wasn’t pre-planned, because they don’t really know ahead of time where the animals are going to be.  So we just walked through the forest, with him looking in the trees with his flashlight, and if he saw something he would gather us around and we would talk about it.  Or, if we passed another tour group or if he got a call on his walkie-talkie, we would book it through the forest to wherever the animal was spotted.  We saw walking stick bugs, praying mantis, leaf-cutter ants, a possum, a sloth, a porcupine (which live in trees, not on the ground), toucans, a brown jay, a few other birds, some bats, a wasp nest, a tree-killing tree, a frog, and a huge tarantula (plus its skin that it had just shed).  I must be forgetting a few, but for a 2-hour hike, we saw a lot!  Oh, and glow-in-the-dark mushrooms!

Monteverde is a really unique place.  For obvious reasons, there are a lot of tourists, and for that they are very organized and visitor-friendly.  For all of our events on Saturday, we were picked up and dropped off at our hostel door and driven to each event.  It makes it really easy to plan what to do when they take care of the details for you.  That being said, Monteverde still felt very authentic.  The activities we did were strenuous – there were really long uphill hikes between zipline platforms, the hiking trails were certainly not easy, and waterfall rappelling is really hard work!  It was good to get out of Heredia for a little while and Monteverde was unforgettable.


Basketball, baby shower, and other babbling

Time August 13th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I have been in Costa Rica for over a month now.  Which means my semester is more than 20% over…wow!!  Looking back, it really doesn’t feel like that much time has passed, but at the same time, we have done so much already that it kind of does.  I can already feel my Spanish improving – I comprehend a lot more of what is said, I have to look up less words when reading, and I find myself speaking faster.  It is really cool to feel these changes as they are happening!

All of the buildings at the UNA look more or less like this – red and grey, with all the windows open and the roof slanted to direct the rain. I think i might become an architect.

I was walking with a friend and I saw this at the U and I yelled out “Cool!” and the people around us stared.

By now we are three weeks into classes, and unfortunately that means I have been busy with readings and essays and other schoolwork.  The classes I am taking are Advanced Spanish, Social History of Costa Rica, Human Rights: Truths and Lies, Culture and Development in Latin America, and… Costa Rican Folkloric Dances.  The dance class is a little scary, because the other people in the class are dance majors and very good at dancing already, whereas I (and the other US students in the course) am a true beginner.  That being said, I am really happy with these courses, and it is shaping up to be a nice variety of subject material that approaches Costa Rican culture from a variety of angles.

Squirrel hunting my laptop

August 2 was the Feast of the Virgin Mary of Los Angeles.  On the eve of the feast, people walk from all over the country to Cartago to pray to Mary.  It is also a time to ask something of Mary, such as to heal a family member.  However, the people that live farther away leave as much as a week early to get to Cartago by the feast day.  Here is a picture of the huge crowd at Cartago.

Here is a picture of the huge crowd at the church in Cartagos.

This past weekend my host family hosted a baby shower for one of my host cousins (?—not totally sure on the family relation).  Now, I have never been to a baby shower in the US, so I really have nothing to compare it to, but it was very fun.  It was HUGE – over 80 people came – and we ate food and played some games and there were lots of door prizes and I have never seen so many cute baby clothes in my life.  I was designated event photographer, since I seemed to be the only person to bring a camera to the event.  It was nice to have something to do though, and the mom-to-be was very appreciative.

Costa Rican tamale – potato and rice filling, with veggies, wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf.

Clockwise from top left: my host mom, the mom-to-be, my host aunt, my host mom’s daughter, and…someone I don’t know

I filled all these boxes with a variety of fresh pastries for the baby shower.

One interesting thing about the University here is that syllabi are considered to be legal documents.  All professors are required to hand them out on the first day of class and read the entire thing with the class.  The syllabus contains everything from the goals of the course to a calendar of all assignments and tests to a bibliography of sources used throughout the semester.  Then, all students sign a list saying they received the syllabus, which is then given to the department chair.  After the first day, if a professor wants to change anything about the syllabus (such as the day a test will be given), the change must be approved by all the students in the course or the professor cannot make the change.  Students have rights here!

Last Tuesday was the National Championships for pro basketball, held at the Palacio de los Deportes (sports complex) right here in Heredia!  My thirteen-year-old host brother Andrés actually had a game there right before the championship, so we watched him win 14-12 and then stayed for the championship.  Warm-ups were a little different: both teams started out warming up as normal, shooting baskets and such, and then after about 10 minutes both teams sat down in a big circle on the court and did stretches as a group.  This lasted about 10 minutes, and then they announced the players (which no one in the crowd paid much attention to).  This was followed by a team picture for each team, and then 3 more minutes of shooting drills.  Then, during the game, the pep band for the home team (Barva, a neighborhood in Heredia) played the exact same 10-second tune after every single score.  Barva won 86-60, so they played it a LOT.  And although there was fairly low turnout (I’d say a couple hundred people at most), you certainly wouldn’t know it by the amount of noise generated by the fans.  The crowd was most excited by Barva’s alley-oop dunk – judging by the amount of cheers, I feel like it definitely would make Costa Rica’s Top Ten Plays!


the “settling in” period

Time July 31st, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The week before last we had orientation activities in Heredia, the city in which we will be living and going to school.  One of the things IFSA does is bring in some University students to accompany us on our outings, so we can ask them questions and get to know some students before classes even start.  During the week we walked around Heredia, San José (the capital of Costa Rica, less than 30 minutes away by bus or train), and the U.  I was very excited to discover that I live close enough to the U that I can walk!  My host mom assures me the walk is safe during the day, and this way I don’t have to pay bus fare every day, which can really add up.  One of my favorite things to do in Heredia so far is go to the movies – less than $4!  Here are some pictures of a day trip we took to a mountain/ranch hike:


One of the language nuances we have noticed between English and Spanish is words that start with “s+consonant” in English always start with “es-” in Spanish.  For example, school –> escuela, space –> espacio, Spot –> Espot (the name of one of my host family’s dogs), and, most directly applicable to me, Stephanie –> Estephanie.  We tried to get the Ticos to say it without the E in front, but it is very difficult for them.  So Estephanie it is!

This past week we started classes (finally!).  Most classes only meet once a week, which means more free time to do homework/readings, but also longer classes – a 3 or 4 hour class is pretty standard.  I have trouble focusing in English for that long, let alone having to be extra-alert to understand the class in Spanish.  Afterwards my brain hurts a little bit, but hopefully it gets easier as the semester progresses!  Another thing that is taking a little adjustment is doing long readings in Spanish.  It just takes me forever, because I have to understand not only the words but also the meaning of the article, the point it is trying to make, etc.  I don’t want to come to class unprepared, so I have been trudging through it.

This is the church of Fatima during mass.  It has no doors, so everything is open to the street, which I think gives it a very welcoming feel.

The UNA (Universidad Nacional) is really pretty!  Most of the buildings have an open-air courtyard in the center, so even when you are indoors it feels like you are outdoors.  This seems to be pretty standard for Costa Rica – instead of running air conditioning, they maintain access to fresh air and the plentiful breezes that come from the ocean.

This is one of those central courtyards in a classroom building at the U. All four floors open up to the courtyard, so fresh air is never far away!

My daily walk to school

So far I am really enjoying my time here in Costa Rica.  IFSA explained to us what we can expect in terms of the inevitable culture shock – homesickness, rejection of host culture, craving foods/environments that remind us of home.  I haven’t really experienced this yet, but things are beginning to feel more permanent.  Not everything is brand new and exciting anymore; I feel like I am in a “settling in” period now.  However, although I am sure culture shock will hit me eventually, for now I am content to be blissfully at peace in this paradise!


A week in paradise, aka Liberia

Time July 16th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

We have only been in Costa Rica for one week, but it feels like we have been here forever!  In just a week of orientation and Spanish classes in Liberia, we have done so much.  Some of the highlights included taking dance classes and performing traditional Costa Rican songs and dances, a group trip to the Playa del Coco, and a day trip to the Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja.

The beautiful Playa del Coco, with its amazing panoramic view of the surrounding tree-covered mountains.

Our group excursion to Playa del Coco was my first time in the ocean.  It was great until I (along with another girl on the trip) stepped on a sea urchin, which left spikes all over our feet.  After consulting first with the Ticos, then our bus driver, and then the man at the local farmacía, we were able to determine that what we stepped on was herizo, which is not poisonous.  So while it hurt to walk, we were not going to die within the hour (always a relief).  Despite that distraction, it was a lot of fun to swim in the ocean and I plan to return often during my time here!

View from the Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja. This would be my background photo if I had Facebook timeline…

This past Saturday we went on a day trip to the Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, which was amazing.  The volcano was closed due to activity, but we hiked through the park and saw a waterfall, volcanitos (sulfer-heated pools of mud-like consistency), amazing views of the forest and mountains, and monkeys!  After the hike we white-water rafted (another first for me) and relaxed in the hot springs.

All of the plants in Costa Rica are beautiful!  I don’t think I have seen a house yet without plants on the porch, in the windows, and throughout the house.  There are so many different kinds of plants, always with such vibrant colors.  At Universidad of Costa Rica (where we had our orientation), there is a beautiful courtyard area with a 360 view of gorgeous trees and other plants.  Pictures don’t do it justice, but I included a few anyway:

One of the things I love most about Costa Rica is how colorful it is.  Not only is there a beautiful array of various plants and flowers all over, but people’s houses and fences and cars are vibrantly colored as well.  Liberia used to have totally white streets due to volcanic ash, and traditionally the houses were painted white as well.  Eventually someone paved the streets of Liberia in a darker color, and now many of the houses are brightly colored.  Still, some Liberians, like my host mom Marta, prefer the traditional white house.

My house in Liberia overlooked the “kinder” (kindergarten) across the street. The tree with the orange flowers is very common in Guanacaste, and the colorful school bus was a welcome sight whenever I was lost and couldn’t find my street!


Costa Rica, Here I Come!

Time June 18th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Hi!  I’m Stephanie, and I will be blogging about my semester in Heredia, Costa Rica.  I will be studying abroad for the fall semester, but the program starts on July 8 – in just a few short weeks!  I am beyond excited to begin my Costa Rican adventure!  Some information about me: I am a sophomore at the University of Saint Thomas (in Minnesota).  I am planning to major in Spanish and either major or minor in Communications/Linguistics.  I love trying new things!  I am looking forward to everything that Costa Rica has to offer – the food, the lifestyle, the wildlife/nature, and, of course, the people.


Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I made a list of all of the things I need to do before I leave: get immunizations, exchange currency, get maps of the region, get school supplies (crazy to be thinking about school supplies in June!), decide whether to get a cell phone that works in South America, square away finances (pay bills, leave PINs and stuff with my parents in case of emergency), and, of course, pack…  Phew!  Getting it all on paper helped to organize my thoughts, but it also made me realize how much I still have left to do.


One of the things I am kind of worried about for the semester is getting sunburned.  I have really fair skin, so while I am sure I will get crazy freckles, I don’t want to look like a lobster in every picture!  I am used to Minnesota falls and winters, so the switch from sweatshirts to tank tops means a lot more skin to slather in sunscreen!


I have a lot of goals for the semester: learn about Latin American culture and history, meet fellow student travelers, become fluent in Spanish (at least as fluent as a non-native speaker can be), learn some Latin-American dances (currently the only dance I really know is the Electric Slide…), and go on lots of outdoor adventures such as white-water rafting, bungee jumping, and surfing.  I think my dreams might be outside of my budget, but hopefully I can get to most of the things on this list!


I chose to study abroad partly because I wanted to take myself completely out of my comfort zone.  I am sure I will be homesick, at least at the beginning, but I heard a quote by Neal Donald Walsch that pretty much sums up my mindset: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  With that in mind, I am ready to take the leap!