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Progress report

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

“If you leave Costa Rica without significantly improving your Spanish skills, I’m going to…”

“What?  What are you going to do?  And just how much is ‘significantly’?  Are you going to measure that in imperial or metric units?”

“Shut up.  You know what I mean.”

* * *

At the request of my former selves, here is is an approximation of the degree of proficiency I have achieved after living and studying abroad for one semester:

I can travel alone with ease wherever I want in Costa Rica by whatever means.

I can ask for directions and understand them when they’re given to me.

I can chat with a Tico peer.

I can chat with a few Tico peers.

I cannot participate in a large group of Tico peers.

I often have to ask my Tico peers to repeat things two or three times.

I understand most professors without a problem (the exception being Gustavo Vargas, who is objectively guilty of mumbling).

When thinking back on conversations, I sometimes forget what language something was said in.

I can normally make myself understood.

I am often constrained by my limited vocabulary, but I can normally get my basic point across by using circuitous wording and asking for help (“What is the verb that means to make this noun?”).

I can go to the doctor, explain the problems with my knees, answer his questions, ask him questions, and understand his treatment instructions.

I can file a police report for an armed robbery.

I can negotiate with people who might be puppets of a Nicaraguan gang or might just be terrified girlfriends of innocent men.

I can talk to a lawyer and file a retraction of a police report.

I can explain how a square perceives a sphere moving through his plane.

I can survive academically, thanks in large part to professors who loosen their grading standards for me or let me reschedule tests or presentations that I didn’t know I had to do that class.

I cannot thrive academically.

I can chat with taxi drivers, guides, and bartenders.

I often have to pretend to understand more of what a taxi driver is saying that I really do.

I can get the gist of large sections of Art History text without looking up any words.

I can fully understand the majority of an Ecology text.

I heavily rely on a bilingual dictionary to write my essays, and I write the more conceptually challenging ones in English first then translate them.

I can work with a bureaucrat to make sure typos are taken out and scientific passports and a research permit are approved.

I cannot overhear conversations.  Even if I try, I generally have trouble understanding speech if I cannot see the speaker’s face.

I met some people today that–I think–for a few seconds–were–maybe–confused about my native language and/or that of my parents.

* * *

My brilliant, hardworking, fearless little sister studied abroad for the entirety of last year, and she said one of the most annoying things upon returning was trying to answer the question “So you’re like totally fluent now, right?”  I hope that this progress report, crude though it may be, will help me in answering the questions I will surely face from others, and from myself.


Asking a question you’d think I’d know the answer to

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I have become obsessed with a question I never thought I would ask:

Why am I learning Spanish?

The question is not whether I want to learn Spanish–let’s not be ridiculous here.  The question is not the existence of the desire, but the object of it.

It first occurred to me to ask myself this when I realized there was no such thing as fluency.  People talk about fluency as if it were a nice grassy park you get to relax in after you come to the end of the language-learning road.  But the language-learning road never ends.  There’s always more vocabulary to learn.  There’s always more subtlety to the accent.  There’s always a more elegant way to write.  Even in my native language I’m continuously refining my speech and writing, so how did I ever get this preposterous idea that there was a paradisaical plateau waiting for me in my second language?

So supreme mastery is out of the question.  But some degree of self-contentment must still be possible.  And that’s what got me wondering why I’m learning Spanish.

If the goal is no higher than surviving travel in Latin America, then I’ve been set for a long time now.  It’s definitely higher than that.  Is it to be able to make a human connection with the residents of the countries I’m traveling in?  To have meaningful conversations?  To make Tico friends?  To get by in school?  To thrive in school?  To participate in scientific research with a Spanish-speaking team?  To publish scientific articles in Spanish?  To be mistaken for a native speaker?  To be as witty and eloquent in my speech and writing as I am in my native language?

The one thing I’m certain about is I have no idea.  It might just be that the only way to know what level of proficiency will satisfy me is to achieve it.  An “I’ll know it when I speak it” sort of thing.


Advice to My Pre-IFSA Self That Future Students Are Welcome to Eavesdrop On

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

  1. Think about what degree of involvement you want with your family. Unless you really have a stick up your boot, most of the things on the family placement preference form—how big of a family, siblings or not, what age, location, pets—are not going to matter that much.  The biggest variable in homestay experiences is what degree of involvement the student has with the family—how much interaction they have on a day-to-day basis and how often they do things together outside the home.  Some students hardly talk to their families and others go to family reunions every weekend, and for any point along the spectrum there’s going to be someone that loves it that way and someone that hates it that way.
  2. Figure out why you want to study abroad. (And be honest with yourself.)  Is it to improve your language skills? Is it to see a new part of the world? Is it to explore new forests and identify new species?  Is it to learn about a new culture? Is it to live out a fantasy you won’t admit to yourself?  Is it to meet new people? Is it to have fun?  If you think about it, it’s probably all of those, and more.  So the trick is to think about how much you want each thing, and how far you will go to get it.  It’s possible they’ll conflict.  Improving your language skills might not be fun.  Exploring the rainforest might mean you miss out on meeting new people.  It’s also possible that you won’t get everything you want in the exact proportion you want it.  You also need to know that what you want may change, and that’s okay.
  3. Know what you want and ask for it.  Academically, extracurricularly, psychologically… doesn’t matter.  Don’t wait until you need something, either.  Just think of anything you want, and ask for it.  IFSA is a good place to start for just about everything.  When I said I was frustrated with my Spanish class, they arranged for a tutor to work with me on more challenging material.  When I wanted to do conservation-related volunteer work, they brought in a biologist to discuss options (actually, my friend was the one who asked for that one—I just happened to walk in on the meeting).  When I said I wanted to talk to a therapist, they said “Is it urgent or can it wait until tomorrow?”  I don’t know how they do it, but Tracy and Theresita make stuff happen.  So ask yourself:  What do you want to happen?
  4. Forget about culture shock.  What the heck is that supposed to mean, anyway?  That people are going to act so differently that you’re going to go crazy?  You don’t need to worry about that.  Most of the shocks you need to worry about are going to come from very real causes that have nothing to do with where you are.  You are going to be away from your friends and family.  You are going to be with a small people of new people—a group of people that may be different than you’re used to because they didn’t all self-select themselves to go to the same tiny liberal arts college in Minnesota.  You’re going to be going to a new school with different standards for work, grading, and use of class time.  You’re going to be surrounded with people who know each other well but don’t know you.  You’re going to have a couple different schedule than you’re used to, and you’re going to have to form new habits.  Any one of those things would be hard even if you were still in the States.  So instead of waiting to be blindsided by bizarre customs or different values, acknowledge the concrete challenges you have to face and be smart about making plans to address them.  Don’t forget what you need to be happy.
  5. Consider the benefits of speaking in English.  I know you’re determined to speak as much Spanish as possible as often as possible.  But you’ll have plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish.  What you won’t have plenty of opportunities for is feeling really comfortable with other people.  It was quite a while before I gave up on speaking Spanish to my IFSA compañeros, but when I did I wished I had much earlier.  The relationships I had with them were completely different from the other relationships I formed over the semester, and they were very important to helping me deal with the challenges I faced.  Sarcasm and sexual inuendo and political debate are precious things.  Speaking English with a few people is not going to keep you from learning Spanish, and it does not make you a terrible person.
  6. Immerse yourself.  I know you’re expecting to be immersed, to be forcefully plunged into the language and held down in it until you learn to breathe it out of sheer necessity to survive.  Guess what?  That’s not gonna happen.  Sure, you’ll have to talk to bus drivers and cashiers, and you’ll have to listen to your professors and read your textbooks, but at the end of the day you can always hole up in your room.  For hours.  Facebook.  YouTube.  Breaking Bad on Netflix.  Repeat.  And it’s all in English.  In other words, no one’s going to do the work for you.  If you want to be immersed you have to run and jump in yourself.  You have to reach out to your classmates.  You have to start conversations with your host mom, and when she asks you a question you better think of something more to say than “Sí.”  The terrible thing about Costa Ricans is they tend to be pretty polite.  If you act like you want to be left alone because you don’t have the cajones to practice Spanish, they’re going to leave you alone.  At the very least, turn on the Spanish subtitles when you’re watching Breaking Bad.  Not only does it teach you about paraphrasing, but it also turns off the English subtitles that normally show when they’re bargaining with Mexican drug cartels, so you have to listen to the Spanish.
  7. You don’t have to become part of the culture to learn about it.  I’m not sure exactly how time-traveling advice-giving works, but I hope I catch you before you and Mom go to the mall and freak out over how many of what color of what type of pants to buy.  I know the IFSA information booklet said almost everyone wears pants in the city even during the summer, but guess what?  You’re not even close to being almost everyone.  Every single thing you do and say marks you as a gringo, and if you did and said nothing your physical features would still give you away.  So stop worrying about fooling people, whether it’s the clothes you wear of the TV you watch (no matter how excited everyone else is, there is nothing that will not make soccer an incredibly boring sport).  Even Tico culture is just that—a culture, a set of generalizations, not a book of unbreakable rules.  There are plenty of Ticos that dress like gringos or otherwise aren’t in the majority in all things they do, so don’t give a single thought to “blending in” or “adopting the culture.”
  8. Ticos are worth your time.  Talk to your Tico classmates and much as possible.  Interacting with peers is the best way to learn the language, period.  And it’s not because they use all the hip slang—I absolutely guarantee you that if you could translate “mae pura vida mae” into English it would sound stupid.  It’s because you’re most likely to stretch yourself when you’re with your peers: there’s just enough peer pressure to hold you accountable to engage (can’t just stare at your beans like you’re having lunch with your host mom), while still being casual enough that you can take risks and make mistakes—it gives you one more thing to talk about.
  9. Take note of your Spanish ability when you are–what sorts of things you can and can’t do–so you’ll be able to gauge your progress at the end of the semester.

It’s all good: Slightly more informed reflections on the use and possible meaning(s) of “pura vida”

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I started this blog by reflecting on the meaning of the ubiquitous Costa Rican phrase “pura vida.”  While I haven’t exactly been conducting any linguistic anthropological studies, I have been paying special attention to the phrase and its use, so I thought I’d present what I learned after four months.

First of all, I was told a little about the history of “pura vida.”  It was originally a “Rasta” phrase—confined to quotes because I am not sure that Costa Ricans always mean “Rastafarian” when they say “Rasta.”  From what I can gather it refers more broadly to Afro-Caribbean culture.  Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean population is largely descended from the slaves imported from Africa or other slave colonies to work the banana plantations of the malaria-ridden lowlands.  Historically separated by geography (there was no viable land route to the Caribbean coast until the first railroad was completed in 1890), racism (blacks were long forbidden from entering the Central Valley), language (many of the Afro-Caribbeans spoke English or Creole), and religion (mostly Protestant, and later Rastafarian influence), it is one of the country’s most distinct cultures.

All of which is to say that the adoption of an Afro-Caribbean phrase as an unofficial national slogan has been a gradual one, taking place over the course of about a generation.  It first made its way towards the mainstream via lower-class men.  My host mom tells me that when she was growing up, it was considered vulgar for a woman to say “pura vida.”  Youth were the next to pick it up.  I would speculate that its origin was an attractive feature for them, because Central Valley youth seem to idolize elements of Afro-Caribbean culture the same way suburban white youth in the States idolize inner-city black culture.  The best example of this is reggaetón, a sort of club reggae culturally equivalent to hip-hop.  “Rasta” is also a form of address between male teens and young adults that carries the similar connotations to “dog.”

After becoming popular with the youth, “pura vida” eventually overflowed age, class, and gender boundaries to achieve its current ubiquity.

I hear it most often from my host father.  It is his stock response to questions regarding how he is or how something was.   80% of our conversations follow this script:


“¡Don Carlos! ¿Cómo le va?”

“¡Pura vida!”

Carlos’ use is by far the most common one, for I think “all good” is an effective translation.  Depending on intonation, it can really mean “everything is good,” or otherwise “things may or may not be good but I’m being optimistic enough to conform with smalltalk norms and avoid further questioning about how I am.”  The next most common use is “thanks,” followed by “no problem” (in the sense of “you’re welcome” for a small thing the giver/actor doesn’t think deserves much credit).  It is also used as an informal greeting or parting, though usually not alone.

The best description of “pura vida” I’ve heard was from my Spanish professor, Mauren: “It means everything and nothing,” (translated and lightly paraphrased).  At first glance, the phrase “pure life” seems to be a powerful mantra for the pursuit of happiness, but the breadth and informality of its use makes it feel empty of any deeper meaning it may have once had.   That’s why I think “all good” is a better translation than “pure life”: from my observations, there is no reason to think “pura vida” means “pure life” any more than “all good” means “entirely of the force that opposes evil.”

There are, however, two exceptions to the near-meaninglessness of “pura vida.”  The first is the tour guide meaning.  I have noticed multiple people that work or live with tourists using “pura vida” with the meaning tourists normally assume it to have: a sort of exclamation celebrating exactly the carefree, seize-the-day attitude they want to adopt while on vacation.  While I have toned down my cynicism from my initial charge of corporate conspiracy, I do maintain the hypothesis that this use of the phrase originated in tourist misunderstanding and is perpetuated by guides who recognize its value to business.  And I have to admit, it was pretty fun when we raised our rafting paddles and followed our guide’s lead in screaming “¡Pura vida!” over the roar of the rapids, however linguistically imprecise it may have been.

The second exception to the everyday insignifance of “pura vida” is its patriotic significance.  Whether this happened before or after the proliferation of “pura vida” t-shirts, coffee mugs, and kitchen magnets is hard to tell, but Costa Ricans are undeniably proud of their catchphrase.  Like other “pachuco” words, they are proud of their dialect’s distinguishing traits.  It might even be the case that the phrase’s banality is part of what makes it so appreciated.  After all, the national bird is the yigüirro, or clay-colored robin.  With over 900 bird species to choose from, among them such gems as the resplendent quetzal, the keel-billed toucan, and the turqoise-browed motmot, Costa Rica decided to represent itself with the most unremarkable one of them all, because its cheery song used to keep farmers company as they worked alone in their fields.  There seems to be an appreciation for the fact that sometimes the simplest things are the most important.


Seven Accounts of Host Family Experiences, as Told by the Students of IFSA Ciclo II 2013

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

A student’s host family is a huge part of their experience, and it was the aspect of studying abroad that most terrified me before I came.  I had the opportunity to fill out a family placement preference form, but I didn’t expect that to make much of a difference.  The things that end up making or breaking a host-guest relationship are rarely ones that can be captured on a simple form.

But IFSA works some magic.

Like most students in my group, I loved my housing situation.  And even among those who didn’t love their situation, no one was so discontented that they needed to switch families (though I am told that in a normal-sized group of about twenty there will often be one student who requests a switch).  It seems like an impossible job, making the right matches, but IFSA does it with an accuracy I can’t imagine.

Recently, we accidentally created an amazing window into the similarities, differences, and mundanities of our daily experiences with our host families.  The students staying for another semester asked the others to describe life with their host families so they could make an informed decision about where they wanted to live for the next semester.  I was fascinated by the collage of stories that arose.  I also thought it could serve as an informative and therapeutic resource for any future students who were as nervous about living with a host family as I was.  So  I got permission from the authors to reproduce 7 of the descriptions here (starting with my own).

At the authors’ requests, their writings are anonymous.  The accounts have been minimally edited, with these exceptions: The names of family members have also been taken out to protect their privacy (except in the case of my own family, because their names are already on this blog).  Since these accounts were given in the context of a Facebook message thread, context-dependent phrases (introductions, references to other members of the conversation, etc.) have been omitted.  All omissions are marked with ellipses within hard brackets—[…]—to distinguish them from the authors’ ellipses.  A few clarifying notes have been added in brackets, but non-Spanish-speaking readers may want to use the translator at if they want to decipher our Spanglish.  One account has been corrected for typos because it was a condition reproduction, but others have been left as is.  I hope you will understand that these accounts were written in the most casual of contexts and forgive the lack of formal style.  As the curator of this collection, the typos and informalities are some of my favorite aspects of these accounts, because they help distinguish the voices and color the writing.

Without further ado, I present to you, Seven Accounts of Host Family Experiences, as Told by the Students of IFSA Ciclo II 2013:

* * *

Marlene is a host-mothering ninja. She executes her duties with surgical precision and impressive mastery. I love her because she is quiet, supportive, caring, thoughtful, and flexible. Whether or not she is eating, she always sits with me while I eat (it’s almost always just the two of us because the others are at work or watching TV). Sometimes we talk and sometimes we don’t, and it’s just as comfortable either way–that’s how chill she is. She keeps the house neat, clean, and pretty, and she does laundry 3 times a week. As with everything she does, she puts great care and attention into her cooking, and it is fantastic. Rich and flavorful and dutifully Tican. I have spaghetti sometimes but almost all other lunches and dinners start with a hearty serving of rice and beans–just the way it should be. She gives me a lot of meat, but has cooked for vegetarians in the past. Also, she takes great pride in cooking with minimal salt and fat.

Carlos is a jolly taxi driver, but I haven’t managed to bond with him much. He spends most of his time watching TV in their bedroom (which opens onto the dining/living room).

María is 26 and just got her licenciada in accounting and a new, higher level accounting job. She is very sweet, but a little louder and more spirited than her mom. She regularly graces the household with her beautiful bilingual shower singing.

José is 23, studying architecture at a private university and working at an evidence repository. When he is home he is usually watching TV in his room. He loves fútbol.

Overall the family is a very comfortable one to live with. Everyone is warm but I still feel like I have plenty of space in our tiny little house (it’s two stories and each is about the size of a large classroom). I’m generally gone on the weekends, so I don’t end up doing much with the family, but we have done a few things and there were a few more I was invited to but didn’t go to, mostly family gatherings. Interest in watching or talking about sports would also go a long way towards participating more fully in the family life.

The neighborhood is safe as far as I can tell, though it’s clearly middle and lower class. There’s a supermarket just around the corner and a great gym two blocks away. The campus, however, is a grueling 700-meter, 8-minute slog away (if walking slowly).

Internet is almost always great. Room is pleasingly minimal, though some might not be pleased by the minimalism that would characterize the remaining floor space if a twin bed were to replace the single.

Bottom line: Perfect family for me.

* * *

I live in San Francisco, about a 30 minute walk Southwest of UNA. There is a bus, but I have never taken it. The neighborhood seems mostly peaceful, but it definitely isn´t the nicest part of town. My house is comfortable, spacious, and downright gorgeous. It of course is in a quinta guarded by vicious (read here: harmless) dogs of all breeds. My room is pleasant and very blue. The bathroom is equally pleasant and very yellow. All the services and amenities are present and in proper working order. My host mom does laundry once a week and regularly loses socks. Occasionally I end up with other people´s clothes, but I have not tried to keep them, haha. I have to wash my own underwear and hang them in my shower. I don´t know if that was tmi… The food is amazing and almost perfectly vegetarian. (My host mom tries to abscond chicken broth in food- the horror- first world problems) I do believe there must be drugs in the gallo pinto- it is incredible. I have both a mom and a dad in their late 40´s early 50´s. My host sister is 21 and goes to a different university. I am always invited to family events or gatherings. Most of the time I go, mostly because I want to experience tico families. Sometimes I feel that the expectation to join in family events is too strong, but I might just be paranoid. That said, I have a hard time turning down invitations and, even though it is self-inflicted, I miss some independence. I´m not particularly friends with my host sister, although she is good for a conversation once every week or so. My host dad is hilarious. He always tries to speak English and rarely succeeds. His favorite phrase is ¨Cómo le how are you?¨ in the mornings. It goes without saying (but of course I´m saying it anyway) that he is obsessed with fútbol. The entire family is Saprisista [fans of Saprissa, San José’s team]. The reason that I have decided to switch families is based solely on my relationship with my host mom. From your responses, I don´t think I´m alone in saying that of all the members of your families, you spend the most time with your host mom. Unfortunately, I´m not an exception. Everything about our personalities and values clash. Although we are cordial to each other, I feel that there is a mutual and ever-present dislike hiding beneath the surface. She isn´t an inherently mean person or anything. I´m sure she will be a good host mother to another student. In most aspects, she has been a good host mother to me and it may seem petty to complain or want to switch. However, because we have the opportunity to switch, I choose not to spend another 4.5 months with a person I neither like nor respect. This semester I have learned the true range of my patience and tolerance. Main idea: my host situation has been awesome, I just can´t stand my host mom for another 4 months.

* * *

my host family is pretty awesome. it consists of a host mom and dad, and they have a daughter but she moved out during my first couple weeks here and ive only seen her a couple times since and ive never talked to her. both my host parents are super funny most of the time and are always asking if i need anything. not in an annoying way but after meals and stuff they make sure i liked it and that i had enough food and things of that nature. my host mom makes my bed every day, and monday and thursday are laundry days when she washes my clothes and towels and puts new sheets on the bed. one of the things that makes them really funny is because my host mom always says my host dad is ‘crazy’…its hard to describe really they are just fun loving and super sweet. they are in their mid-50’s, my host dad is retired and i dont think my host mom worked. it took a little while until i started talking to them and i spent a long time in my room at the beginning of the semester, but thats more because i was shy because they were always willing to talk to me. my bedroom is really nice in my opinion. i have a..queen?..sized bed that dominates quite a bit of the room but i also have a good sized dresser, a desk with drawers, and a wardrobe/closet that has hangers and rod and the other door opens up to shelves. I also have my own bathroom so that is super convenient…my room is located in the back of the house so i dont disturb anyone else with my strange sleep patterns aka not sleeping at night (: the food is sooo good and my host mom does a good job when it comes to preparing food for a vegetarian. breakfast is pretty much always a bowl of fruit, fresh oj, fresh coffee, and some kind of bread. the exception is when i get cereal with sliced bananas, but i still get the oj and coffee. lunch and dinner are usually just casados, so salad, rice, beans, and some kind of potato or lentil, sometimes fish, and sometimes plantains too. the frescos are super good […] as far as family stuff, every once in a while i get invited to stuff but ive always been busy so i havent gone to anything…they are pretty chill and we dont live by any family. i will add that there is a neighbor, […], who is guatemalan but lived in the states for about 42 years so ill see him a couple times a week and he talks english to me (: super nice guy. i usually see him at the bus stop whenever im going out at night. im about 3km from the u but there is a bus that picks up and drops off about a block from my house and goes to right by central park and its 215 colones. i usually walk but its nice to have the option. I live in mercedes norte and its a quiet place and nothing really happens…ive heard a couple stories but nothing bad. there are also a few supers and a panaderia really close so thats nice. as far as internet goes, ive had a couple incidences with horrible internet but they usually are resolved when i unplug the router for a minute, and a couple times i just go out closer to it. when i first came they changed services because the last one was really bad and its gotten a lot better. it was a bit incomodo right after my host sister moved out because it made my host mom really depressed and she vented to me once or twice but she is better now, it was just a shock. she is just a super sweet little lady that liikes to host students because she gets lonely and bored. i have loved this experience and i cant wait to come back for a visit!

* * *

I live with my mom and one sister now. The sister is 24 but is never ever home. The mom works a lot and I’m home alone A LOT but I really like my host mom we’ve bonded over her burritos and food and we laugh a lot. She told me she is extremely chill and hands off and just wants us to have a good time. The grandparents live next door but the grandpa is really really sick…it doesn’t look good. I don’t really do activities with them ever, sometimes they go away for the weekend an I’ll be home alone grandma makes me food. But I live by the [San Pablo] mas por menos [a grocery store] […]. And take the por tibas bus stop 430 colones. But I like my family but if you want to going places and being like really really apart of the family I wouldn’t recommend it, but I love my mom.

* * *

Ok, I personally love my host family. I live with my host mom and two host sisters (24 and 25 I think). One of my sisters is a teacher and the other is a dentist so they’re gone during the day but usually home for dinner. The girls are super nice and talkative and always have funny stories to share from their days at work. My host mom is super relaxed and lets me do whatever but just asks that I text her if I’m going to miss a meal. Her food is delicious and she is super conscious of what I like and don’t like. She always tells me that if I don’t like something just to tell her and she won’t make it again. She’s great about making me a lunch to take to school if I don’t have time to come home and always asks if I want to take any snacks on weekend trips. My family doesn’t really sit down and eat together all at once. My host mom always asks me what time I want to eat and the girls just eat whenever they get home. The TV is almost always on when we’re eating and I find a lot of our conversations centered around the strange Costa Rican TV shows here haha. I live in Santo Domingo which is a little far away but right on the Por Tibás bus route in case you ever want to go to San José (buses to Heredia are 300 or 430 [colones] depending on how patient you are). My house is big and clean and I have a large room with my own bathroom. My house is also located above a delicious panadería. I love my host family but I don’t really do any extra activities with them. If you’re looking for a family to be super involved, this is not them. This family is helpful and incredibly nice but very hands off.

* * *

Anyway my host family consist of [my host mother] (mi mamatica), [my host father] (el macho de la casa), [my host sister] ([…] shes 23) and [my host brother] (who turns 14 next week, my bro). […] My host mom is obsessed with her nails and talking shit about other people, so thats probably why we get along so well hahaha. She loves some good gossip and talking about crazy people. Anyway she basically just cleans watches telenovelas and csi/ncis all day. She lives the live. My host dad is like a 13 year old boy trapped in a 40 something year old body. He like literally talks like mae pur vida mae [slang typical of adolescents and young adults, particular males] 24/7 its adorable. But anyway he is super nice and always makes jokes and force feeds me shots of random alcohol behind my host moms back. If you need a secret drinking partner he is your man. […] my host sister is probably the smartest person i met since in costa rica, not that is saying much. (sorry that was mean). Anyway she is always studying cause she is in grad school and works on her thesis all weekend but she is super cool and nice. Ummmm she loves chick flicks so thats like all we do with our time and ummm look at pictures of thor aka chris hemsworth aka god all the time. She never goes out or anything but she is cool to hang out with at home. [My host brother] literally looks like a wii character, pobresito. Anway he is like the nicest cutest middle schooler ever. He is obssesed with mindcraft and video games and food (his parents made him go on a diet) but yeah he is super funny and tries to scary me when im not looking all the time. He is a good egg.

* * *

basically i live with one lady, [my host mother], i think she is like 65 but she’s the sweetest cutest lady ever and holds my hand across the street. she has two kids (the daughter is studying in spain and the son lives by paseo de las flores). he has a kid […] and he’s cute and tries to speak english sometimes. anyways they come over sometimes but not much. [My host mother] doesnt really do anything too crazy, she likes to clean and cook (makes bomb ass food and is good for vegetarians), she goes to church sometimes, visits her hermano in grecia. like i said she doesnt really do much and is accustomed to her ways (that being said she is 65). the house is pretty small but its nice and quiet and in a good neighborhood, almost in barva. im not alone that much but sometimes which is nice, she lets me do whatever i want and doesnt judge me or anything if i ever wanna go out just tells me to be carefull. she recently got a dog “dukey” and he is a little black terrier and super friendly i love him already and he’s only been here for 2 days ( i snuck him into my room today…) but yeah nothing too extravagant but its been good for me. [My host mother] is the sweetest though and so loving, i’m sad to leave her! she’s hilarious too sometimes… like she thought norway was part of the united states and she said i got a cold because of the type of cement they have in costa rica. so those are always some good stories to tell.



English in Costa Rica

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Many people choose to study abroad at least in part because they want to get to know another culture.  For me, the subtext of “I want to get to know another culture” is “I want to see something exotic,” and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.  But what happens when another culture is not exotic?

In a way it’s nice that I’m studying at the Universidad Nacional, because I hate the city.  If I got to live wherever I wanted in Costa Rica, it would be in an idyllic agricultural landscape backed by a virgin rainforest.  And when I go on weekend trips, I try as hard as I can to see Costa Rica as I want to see it: wild, rustic, and exotic.  But during the week, I’m forced to see the Costa Rica that the majority of Costa Ricans see: city life in the Central Valley.  And city life in the Central Valley isn’t all that exotic.

To illustrate that point a little more objectively, I walked from my house to the IFSA office along the main street on the west side of central Heredia (the same way I take to the university) and recorded all of the written English I saw.  I have included brand names that may not technically be English words but are equally effective at measuring American influence.  In addition to a few English T-shirts and too many car makes/models to keep track of, this is what I found on my 1.2 km walk:


Coca-Cola (half of sign for neighborhood grocery store)

Servicio Express (on pizzeria window)

E-mail (on sign for tow truck business)

Internet / Fax (on business center sign)

English Spoken (next to phone number on dental clinic sign)

Express (next to phone number on Bufalos Mojados buffalo wings sign)

Genesis Early Learning and Daycare Center (name of daycare center)

Maternal Prekinder Kinder / Email (on sign for daycare center)

Electroburger Underground (name of restaurant)

Echnosystems (name of technology store)

Suki Craft (name of craft store)

Scrapbook (on craft store window)

Beach House (name of bar)

Wifi free (on Cafetería Amigos sign)

Liftmaster Professional (on a sign, not sure what for)

Ultimate Fitness (name of boxing and martial arts club)

Stadium (name of bar/restaurant)

Copy America (name of copy store)

Coca-Cola (painted on snack stand)

Reposteria Food Market (name of snack store)

Pepsi (on sign for snack store)

Quizno’s / Pepsi (flyer handed to me) (on truck)

K Bar: Red Berries (for sale in snack stand)

Burger King

Coca Cola / Café Internet Open / Coca Cola (sign for internet café)

Quizno’s Sub

Whopper Jr. (on Burger King sign)

Pizza Hut

Taco Bell

Pepsi (restaurant sign)

Pepsi (restaurant sign)

Pepsi (restaurant sign)



Super Max / Nachos supreme / burrito supreme / pepperjack crunchy wrap (on Taco Bell sign)

Papa John’s

Spoon (name of café? on random sign)


Sushi Home (name of sushi place)

Sexy Shop (name of sex shop)

Game Master (name of game store)


That’s 43 English sightings in about 15 minutes.  When you see the marks of your native land about every 20 seconds, it makes it pretty hard to feel like you’re somewhere exotic.

As a tourist, I found this very disappointing.  I wanted coconuts and quetzals and cattle—who doesn’t?  But as a student, I eventually learned to appreciate what I was seeing.  It was not a lack of culture, but evidence of a culture different from the one I was hoping for.

Urban Costa Rica of the twenty-teens is not rural Honduras of the nineteen-eighties (where my mom worked in Peace Corps, the stories from which shaped my fantasies of Latin America).   In the days of the Spanish Empire, Costa Rica’s portless Caribbean coast and uncrossable thicket of canyons and mountains relegated it to a backwater.  But the geography that was so hostile to transportation also hosted some of the best terrain in the world for growing coffee, and the growth of that industry catapulted Costa Rica ahead.  With the help of a couple more economic successes and social advancements—especially the establishment of free public education and the abolition of the army—Costa Rica eventually came to be the richest and most stable country in Central America.  One of the effects of that wealth and stability has been a growing relationship with the superpower that has alternately abused and aided i.  Costa Rica’s somewhat bland national identity is actually the result of its unique history.  The words and logos I see may be familiar, but they represent a cultural dynamism unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.


One man’s trash

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I may have mentioned that I am not a city person.  And that Heredia is a city.  One of the stranger ways I coped with this was to go looking for trash.

I have a dear friend—back in the land of noontime shadows—who collects everything.  Cool-colored stones, funnily shaped hardware, intriguing twigs…  The mind of a philosopher looking through the eye of a magpie.  His ability to find beauty in the most unlikely of places is one of my favorite things about him.

Among the most expansive and best curated of his collections is his bottle cap collection.  At some point it occurred to me to start collecting Costa Rican bottle caps to bring back to him.  I thought it would just be an absent-minded favor, just sticking caps in my pocket when I found them.  But it ended up becoming much more.

Finding caps was satisfying, and it wasn’t long before incidental discovery gave way to active searching.  Instead of arbitrarily letting my gaze graze along at eye level, I aimed it down at the sidewalks and gutters as I walked to and from school.  A clear hierarchy of discoveries emerged: at the bottom, bottle caps no different from the ones in the States (Corona Extra); a step up, American brands with Spanish text (Coca-Cola: Ingredientes: agua carbononatada, azúcar, color de caramelo…); then regionally unique brands (Pilsen).   I would pick up duplicates and meticulously compare their condition to select the best possible specimen.  The crowning glory of my tribute collection is an Imperial, the classic black eagle on a golden background—the true flag of Costa Rica—with hardly a dent from the bottle opener and only the tiniest of scratches from the asphalt where it fell, dejected, from the hands of the drunkard who had no idea what it was really worth.

Of course, the bottle caps themselves are worth nothing.  The fact that they might make my friend smile is nice, but even that wasn’t my main reason for scouring the gutters.  More than anything, I looked for them because it was an easy way to focus my attention.  One of the highest forms of happiness I know is wonder.  Wonder comes from newness, and newness comes from paying attention.  If you look at anything close enough, you will find something new, and you can find wonder where there was nothing before.  So long after I had grown bored with my seven-block walk to school, I was able to find excitement in the very litter that I had once found ugly.  And though I can’t say I really produced anything of academic merit, I was thoroughly convinced that I was undertaking a scholarly endeavor by compiling a comprehensive index of the regional diversity of carbonated beverages consumed.  (In fact, I told my friend about my undertaking, one of the first things he said was—“Can you conclude anything about the drinking habits of the culture?”)

There was a long time when I wasn’t enjoying my study abroad experience, when my head would have been down whether I was looking for bottle caps or not.  But finding an excuse to look for beauty every day made a difference, however small, because it was all a matter of perspective.



Telling bad stories

Time November 18th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It’s easy to tell good stories.  It’s hard to tell bad ones.

I stopped updating this blog regularly because things changed quite a lot, and all I had to tell were bad stories.  After a weekend trip to Nicaragua turned into one of the most scary, stressful, and exhilarating experiences of my life, I had trouble engaging in my quiet life in Heredia. (That is a great story, which means it’s really hard to tell.  It takes two hours of talking or who knows how many days of writing, so I’m not going to tell it here.)  My mindset became increasingly negative, so I stopped writing, both because I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear me complaining and because I didn’t know how to express what I was thinking and feeling in a valuable way.

I also felt guilty about not being happy.  Here I was experiencing the opportunity of a lifetime, and all I could think about was the ugly stray dogs and the piggish machisto comments.  I came to realize that the reasons I regarded my feelings as invalid was because they did conform to the narrative others and I constructed about what a study abroad experience should be like.  Aside from lip service to some vague idea of “culture shock,” most talk of studying abroad centers on glowing superlatives.  It was an amazing experience.  Unbelievable.  Life-changing.  You’re going to have incredible adventures.  I can’t wait to hear all your stories.

“Is it amazing? I must hear all about it.  Are you speaking Spanish like a native?” a friend wrote a month ago.  I still haven’t answered her, mostly out of confusion.  How do I respond if I’m not feeling amazing?  If I’m feeling stressed and frustrated and lonely?

And I’m as guilty as anyone else.  I just posted a Facebook status thanking my host family for “a marvelous four months.”  Marvelous?!  Sure, I feel grateful and hopeful and excited now, but that wasn’t the case for all four months.  So why did I say that?  Because it’s easy.  That’s what people want to hear, and what I want to hear.  I have a new perspective, having come to the end of my semester, and part of that perspective is obscuring to myself the things I don’t want to characterize my memories.

In a way, I think the difficulty of (some people’s) study abroad experiences is what leads (some of) them to resort to cliched superlatives (myself included).  How do you explain that it was the best and the worst and the mediocrest experience of your life? I can’t make sense of it myself, much less explain it to anyone else.  Best just to round up to “amazing.”


My first cooking lesson: Croquetas de atún

Time August 23rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

[Note: This is not the physical/cultural/navigational challenge alluded to at the end of the last post.  That was the 20-mile walk to the pilgrimage site of La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, an experience that was as fascinating as my description of it was tedious.  My decision not to finish and publish that draft was an act of mercy, not laziness.]

I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that I eat like a king here by learning to cook from la famosa Doña Marlene herself.  This is what we made in what I hope is only the first of many cooking lessons.  Not only are they delicious, but their ingredients, flavor, and loving preparation make them a good example of Costa Rican cuisine as I know it.


Croquetas de atún (Tuna croquets)

Canned tuna (or other fish or chicken, lightly cooked) [2 cans]

Black pepper [1 hearty dash]

Spice mix [1 hearty dash]

Onion/pepper/cilantro/garlic, finely diced [1 small handful]

Salsa Lizano (the proud centerpiece of Costa Rican cuisine–the Lonely Planet travel guide compares it to Worcestershire sauce) [1 guzzle]

Cooked white rice [in equal proportion to tuna]

Eggs [1 or 2]

Bread crumbs [1-2 cups]

Cooking oil

Makes 15 golf-ball sized croquetas.


Drain tuna.  Mix in bowl with black pepper, spice mix, diced vegetables, Salsa Lizano, and rice.

Add first egg.  Mix.  Add the second egg if the mix is not wet enough to be cohesive.

Form a rough ball.  Doña Marlene makes hers the size of golfballs.  If it’s too crumbly, add another egg.

Squeeze to get some liquid out.  Drizzle with bread crumbs as you continue to mold and compress the ball.  Keep adding bread crumbs until you can form it into an attractive spheroid without it falling apart.

Pour just enough oil  to cover the bottom of the pan.  Cook slowly, rolling the ball to rest on a new face whenever it becomes well browned.  Doña Marlene does this with terrifying precision by holding a fork in each hand and using them like claws.  Repeat until the entire surface of the croqueta has been browned (about 15 min.).

Place on absorbent towel, let cool, serve.

Croquetas can be prepared ahead of time.  You can keep them raw in the fridge and fry just before serving (if they are to be eaten within a day or so) or you can fry and freeze them for longer periods (quickly reheat in frying pan).


Settling in, and regretting it.

Time August 8th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Sometime in the late morning or early afternoon of the Thursday of the first week of classes (exactly 3 weeks after setting off from home), I passed a major landmark in study abroad experience: I got bored in Costa Rica.

It was a national holiday.  We had no classes and no scheduled activities, so I took a lot of time to do very little.

But it was more than that.  I had gotten comfortable.  I had even started something of a routine.  Most disturbingly, things had begun to seem ordinary.

How? How could I travel to an exotic country I had wanted to visit since I was learning to read, only to get bored after 3 weeks?  It’s not that I expected every minute of my study abroad experience to glimmer with quetzalian iridescence.  I just didn’t think my sense of wonder was so fickle.  I firmly believe that ordinariness is a delusion suffered by those who are too lazy or ungrateful to sustain the curiosity that recognizes the extraordinary in everything.  How could I sit like that in the central park, staring at rock doves (Columba livia, the city pigeon we’ve all seen a million times), instead of running after the parakeets in the treetops?  I hadn’t even identified them yet!

How do I find the extraordinary again? I wondered.  Well, how did I lose it?  I got comfortable.  So I needed to start by making myself uncomfortable.  I need something to challenge me.  Physically.  Culturally.  Navigationally.

Luckily, I found just the thing.


Off to the races: My first day of class.

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I for one had a ton of fun on my first day of class.  It was like a cultural safari: I got to drive around and see all the sights I had heard about, but I was never actually at any risk of being harmed by the various beasts.

My first (and only) class of the day was scheduled for 8:00, so I got to the university around 7:35, supposedly to make sure I found the room on time but mostly to lord the star-spangled banner of American punctuality over the infamous “Tico time.”  Come to find out it starts at 10:00, not 8:00.  Which was fine, because I needed to make some changes to my schedule anyway.  When I got to the office I found out that the guy in change of exchange student scheduling was late: the first sighting of the day, a real live Tico time.  So I waited around, another famed characteristic of negotiating bureaucracies here.  About an hour later our friend in the scheduling office arrived, but not long thereafter I got a call from some classmates who, while wandering in search of the classroom, found out it actually had started at 8:00.  So those of us left in the scheduling office scurried up, down, in, out, back, and forth until we finally found the classroom.  It was a four hour class, so I wasn’t too worried about missing the first hour and a half.  Besides, they couldn’t meet the quorum without us, since it was an IFSA-only class and only two IFSA students had managed to find it so far.

Best of all, after our embarrassed/bemused introductions (depending on the person), we found out that we were in the presence of the most exotic creature of Costa Rican university life: the initially absent professor.  My host mom had specifically warned me about this that morning at breakfast, but even then I didn’t believe I’d have the luck to see it myself.  Sure enough, for reasons never explained to us, Profesor Carlos Naranjo Gutierrez had better things to do than attend the first lesson of his own class, and we were treated instead to a dramatic reading of the syllabus by the well-spoken substitute.

The power of context is amazing.  In the States, any of these things—extreme tardiness by professionals, long waits, absent professors—would annoy, if not infuriate, me.  But for the purposes of my visit here in Costa Rica, I enjoyed encountering all of them, especially since I had been warned.  In one short and sweet jeep jaunt past all the best watering holes, I checked everything off my list in time for lunch and a lazy afternoon.


“Mi casa es su casa.” For real this time.

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Four hours!  The bus ride from Liberia to Heredia was supposed to take four hours, not a minute less!  But there we were, a meager three and a half whirls of the watchhand later, and the bus was grinding to a torturous crawl through city traffic.  It was not long after midday, and we were about to meet our host families.  Before long we came to a stop in front of a superficially calm but no doubt ravenous horde of middle-aged mothers.  Tracy (one of our IFSA program leaders) told us to stay in our seats while she went out to talk too them.  I knew a better analogy would be the moment of strained but peaceful contact between formerly isolated tribes, but I couldn’t help but think about that part in Hotel Rwanda when the militants hack into the refugee caravan with machetes.

“Alright, chiquillos.  Come on out.” (Or something to that effect in Spanish.)

I stood up and was surprised to find my legs still worked.  Dammit.

But when I saw my host mom, Doña Marlene, her smile was like Alexander’s sword cutting the Gordian knot I had gotten my panties into.  My host dad Don Carlos was there, too, and he exuded a jolliness that made me feel immediately welcome.  We got my bags, bade goodbye to the flock of fledgling gringos, and drove home.

Upon arrival I met my host sister María (25, about to finish her thesis in accounting at UNA), and later my host brother José (22, studying architecture at la Universidad Latina).  Doña Marlene had prepared a rich lunch of rice and beans, baked chicken and potatoes, avocado with salt, salad, and fresh fruit juice.  Initially intimidated, I managed to fit it all in as Doña Marlene explained her rules and expectations.  Rules: 1) If you’re going to miss a meal, call or text me to let me know.  2) If you are coming home late, please take a taxi so I know you’re safe.  Expectations: 1) Feel free to have friends over.  2) Stay in or go out as you please.  3) Do whatever you want.

I think we can make this work.

But even more valuable than Doña Marlene’s laissez faire policies was the way she somehow made me feel immediately at home.  Part of that was how fondly she talked of her past guest students (she said the worst part of hosting students was when they had to leave).  While trying to keep in mind that first impressions are not always accurate, I felt pretty sure I was going to have a very special experience.

After lunch she thoughtfully suggested I rest, giving me a few hours of much needed writing-and-relaxing time in my room.  My room is small and simple—just how I like it.  It is easy to keep clean and orderly, giving me a sense of peace and control.  In fact, the whole house is an architectural echo of the intimacy I already felt from my host family.  It is very compact, with only a few small rooms on each of the two floors.  My room and the bathroom both look out over the enclosed patio, which creates a corridor that allows domestic sounds to connect most parts of the house: Doña Marlene washing clothes, María singing in the shower…  With a different family that might be uncomfortable, and with a big noisy family like mine it would be annoying, but here I find the closeness reassuring.


Thirsty for beans

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by


Above: A typical meal in my Liberia host family.


It is hard to overstate the importance of rice and beans to the Costa Rican diet.  I have rice (white) and beans (black or deep red) with every meal.  I’m not sure why, but for some reason at breakfast it’s called “gallo pinto” (“black-and-white-speckled rooster”), the difference being that the rice and beans are cooked and served together instead of cooked separately and served side by side.  They say there’s some added flavoring, but I can’t say I really notice any cracks in the monotony.

Said monotony was the subject of a few lighthearted complaints during orientation week.  I held back, afraid of how five and a half months would ever pass if I started complaining after five and a half days.  Instead, I’ve set my mind to drinking rice and beans like water.  I hope to internalize the monotony until I fail to notice it having any taste, while at the same time yearning for it to quench my hunger.

I am inspired by one of the many stories my mom tells of her time in the Peace Corps in Honduras, which together account for much of attraction to Latin America.  In this story, she is at at fancy meal with her friend Chico.  The meal is “fancy” because it has meat, a rare treat for poor farmers.  But Chico says, “Even with meat, without my rice and beans, it’s like I haven’t eaten.”

So far, so good.  I haven’t gotten bored of rice and beans, and I think I’m even learning to love them more.  They elicit a sort of contented nostalgia.  That’s probably because we used to eat them a lot when we were little, when we had Salvadoran babysitter.  But I like to imagine that there’s something in me that is remembering what it is like to coax corn out of the strained slopes of Vivistorio, Honduras, something that won’t be full until he’s had his rice and beans.


Orientation Week 1: Liberia

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The first week of orientation took place in Liberia.  We had Spanish class each morning from 8:00 to 12:00, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because we had luxuriously catered coffee/juice-and-pastry break in the middle, and that lasted about half an hour.  I was pretty disappointed by the class itself, but the argument could be made that the program was simply using a different pedagogical strategy than I was expecting.  I really wanted a blistering review of all of Spanish grammar, with drills coming hard and fast nonstop for four hours, and maybe some hefty vocabulary lists to memorize each night.  I wanted a linguistic boot camp that would give me everything I needed to go charging into battle.  Instead, it was slower-paced with longer-term goals.  The first two days were spent entirely on assessment tests and exercises.  The rest of the time featured some basic grammar review (present tense, ser vs. estar, por vs. para…) but focused mainly on conversation.  I guess the idea was just to oil us up, to make us feel more comfortable speaking the language even if we weren’t actually speaking it any better.  Oh well.

I didn’t realize that we would spend this first week with a temporary host family in Liberia, so my knees got a little wobbly when they told us we would be going home with them.  But I had to put on a good face once I met them, and before long I fooled myself, too.  It helped that I understood a surprising amount of what they were saying.  My stay ended up being an entirely pleasant one, largely because the family didn’t worry themselves too much about me.  From stories I had heard of other people’s host family experiences, I had two main fears: 1) having to listen to interminably long one-sided conversations, and 2) being forced to eat more than I wanted to avoid insulting my host mom.  Neither was a problem.  I spent the entire first evening with my Liberian host family, but after that I hardly saw them.  I got to come and go when I pleased, and when I was hungry my host mom or host sister would simply dish out moderate portions from some Tupperwares, stick it in the microwave, and leave me to eat alone.  It was exactly the sort of low-key introduction to host family living that I needed.

Of course getting to know my peers was fun.  Though there are only 13 of us in the IFSA group, we make full use of the geographic and academic diversity our sprawling homeland allows.  There was a certain anthropological delight to be had in watching us form a social community ex nihilo.  At least for me, the biggest obstacle to integration was the language barrier, or rather, the languages barrier.  To speak English would betray our common mission of learning Spanish, to speak Spanish would betray the sense of solidarity in the face of linguistic and cultural challenges coming from all directions.  I worried so much about choosing one language over another that sometimes I didn’t speak at all (readers who know me are just going to have to take my word for it).

But best of all, IFSA arranged for us to have “amigos Ticos,” a group of four university students that were integrated into some of our activities.  I would never have imagined that such an artificial social arrangement would yield such amazing results.  The credit, of course, goes to the Ticos, who were incredibly nice.  They even went out with us in the evenings.  How they had the patience to put up with our strong accents and butchered conjugations I don’t know, but we learned more about the language and culture with them at the bars than we did in the classroom.  (Also, it’s pretty awesome to casually go to bars.  I don’t drink, so it’s not worth trying to sneak into a bar in the States, but since the drinking age is 18 here, bars make for fun places to meet and talk over grapefruit soda.)  At the end of the week, goodbyes were sad and sweet.

On our last day in Liberia, we got to leave the city and go for a short jaunt through Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja.  Binoculars hanging from my neck and notebook in hand, I had reached nirvana.  (Believe me, there will be plenty of sylvan romanticism later, so I’ll spare you the details now.)



Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

On one of my morning runs through Liberia, I leapt over a stinking pile of trash to land in the shade of palm trees.  At the very moment I landed on the crumbling sidewalk, I felt a dual pang of gratefulness and pity, which inspired me to write this dedication.

I hereby dedicate this blog in solemn memory of the countless poor souls whose pursuit of education and adventure has stagnated in the sterile streets of Spain.

Ojalá that one day they will rejoin the Spanish-speaking flock in the greener pastures of the New World, and that they too will see the light of the sun that leaves no noon shadow.


Ode to Liberia, Revised

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Prof. Rodolfo Salazar Solórzano, in an ode to Liberia:

Mi ciudad es blanca,                              [My city is white,

sencilla y risueña,                                  simple and smiling,

con olor a monte                                    with the smell of mountains

con olor a monte                                    with the smell of mountains

y a flor de reseda.                                  and of mignonette flower.


The Rough Guide to Costa Rica (September 2011):

“Known colloquially as the ‘Ciudad Blanca’ (white city) due to its whitewashed houses, Liberia is the only town in Costa Rica that seems truly colonial in style and character…  Liberia’s wide, clean streets are used more by cyclists and horseriders than motorists.”


Cameron Meyer Shorb, in a blog post about Liberia (2013):

Liberia is neither white nor clean.  It smells neither of mountains nor mignonettes, and I didn’t see a single horserider in the city.

Though a few whitewashed houses remain, the majority boast the brightest and sweetest colors of the tropics.  The gutters are littered with trash and rotting mangoes, giving the city a sickly sweet smell quite unlike that mountains or flowers.  The traces of Spanish colonialism meekly cede center stage to the American empire, with McDonald’s and Burger King signs looming high above the crossroads at the entrance to town.  The streets are not much wider than necessary for a car or two to race by its parked peers, much to the terror of pedestrians.

I loved Liberia.  It surged with the life and death that come so easily in these restless latitudes.  It seemed as proud of its progress as it was of its history.  The central church is a magnificent modern cement cathedral, as ugly as it is beautiful, asserting its independence defiantly and celebrating its contentedness confidently.


The First Foray

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I arranged to arrive midday on Friday, giving me more than 48 hours alone before I had to meet up with the group Sunday night, when the group flight was getting in.  The idea was to make the transition slower, because I could spend the first few days getting to know Liberia and getting my Spanish tongue in shape.  I learned to like traveling alone by doing so for a month in Spain last winter.  I love it because I don’t have to worry about anything: anything can go wrong and the only one it’s going affect is me.  Okay, so maybe that sounds like something to worry about, but most of the time it isn’t, because most of stress of traveling (within the comforts of civilization, that is) does not come from things that could do any lasting physical harm.  It’s mostly about missing buses and getting lost and sounding stupid and being hungry and tired.  But with no one to empathize with and no one to complain to, those things cannot manifest themselves as anything other than temporary variations from preferred outcomes.

And then’s there’s the fact that when you’re traveling alone, you can do what you want.  For example, I wanted to walk eight miles to Liberia from the airport.  I was starving for Costa Rica and I was going to devour the landscape step by step.

I filled my Camelback with extra water in the airport bathroom.  I wasn’t supposed to drink it, but I new I should take it just in case.  It was hot out, and belated diarrhea would be better than immediate heatstroke.

Within the first twenty minutes I saw [what I believed to be] a boat-tailed grackle, a great kiskadee, an ani, and a brilliant turquoise, orange, and green bird that may have been a motmot or a flycatcher. I’d have to look them up later.  [I did: 1) Actually a great-tailed grackle, Quiscalus mexicana.  2) I can’t be confident in that identification; there are many look-alikes. 3) Groove-billed ani, Crotophaga sucirostris. 4) Turquise-browed motmot, Eumomota superciliosa.]

Trees. Ceibas? Huh, they must be related to locust trees. Legumbraceae, then. Nitrogen-fixers. Good. But didn’t Dan say phosphorous tends to be the limiting nutrient in tropical areas? Then why the energy investment in nitrogen fixation? Maybe there’s not enough rainfall in this area for phosphorous to be the limiting nutrient.

Brahmin cattle, dewlaps and humpfat and all. We must be in the tropics!

I tried to balance my fascination with the wonders of the roadside with a healthy awareness of the possibility of basking snakes, poisonous plants, the arrival of the thunderstorm that I could see on the horizon, heat stroke, and the worsening of the strain that had already started in my right hip.


A guy pulled over:

“Where are you going?”


“Do you want a ride?”

I thought about it.


I added as I climbed in his truck: “Pero sólo si puedo practicar mi español.”

We had a great chat.


My room in the hostel (Hotel Guanacaste) was luxuriously tiny. A little longer than the bed in each direction, yet still equipped with a desk, a toilet, a sink, and a shower with soap. The Spanish hostels never had soap.

I crashed, but eventually revived myself and set to exploring.  I found the hotel where I was to meet the group (a few blocks away as the native walks, a mile or two as I did). I looked in. Total pansy-fest. Tablecloths and everything. Thank goodness I put myself up somewhere proper.

* * *

I spent the next few days exploring Liberia.  I explored the streets on my half-hour, half-assed morning runs, going in a different direction each day.  I explored the outskirts on daytime walks to the trash-strewn but bird-rich Río Liberia, where I saw an 18-inch crocodile.  A man catching tiny fish told me I shouldn’t hang out there alone because there were drug addicts that would slit my throat to steal my watch. I explored the food at tiny restaurants (each was just a bar looking into an open kitchen) in the central market and the bus station.  And I explored the language over two multi-hour conversations with a nice old man, Don Bruno.  I met him when he laughed at me for doubling back after I realized I was going in the wrong direction.  He invited me into the house he was preparing to rent, where we sat on the two plastic chairs that were the only furnishing and drank small plastic cups of unnervingly good coffee.  He did most of the talking, which was fine by me.  It helped that he was an atheist and a friend of the gays.  We differed on our reasoning for the latter, but my attempt to explain the social construction of gender in Spanish was unsuccessful.  (I stowed the subject away to use as a benchmark on my way to fluency.)

It was late in the afternoon on Sunday when the fisherman told me the river wasn’t safe, so I went back to Don Bruno’s house, picked up the luggage I had stowed there, and thanked him again.  It was time at last to surrender my liberty.  I was turning myself in.


Packing: An audiovisual interpretative documentation

Time July 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

Find more videos like this on Institute for Study Abroad – Butler University


Packing: A comprehensive logodocumentation

Time July 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “The measure of a man is his material possessions.”  Instead of wasting time studying grammar, expanding my vocabulary, or reading about Costa Rican culture, I spent much of my pre-departure weeks writing packing lists, buying things missing from those lists, and, finally, packing.

This is what I came up with:

  • Footwear:
    • Sneakers
    • Hiking boots
    • Tevas
    • Socks:
      • Black ankle socks (9 pair)
      • Hiking socks (2 pair)
      • Dress socks (1 pair)
  • Legwear:
    • Pants:
      • Jeans (2)
      • Casual khakis
      • Lightweight synthetic khakis (outdoor or formal)
      • Lightweight synthetic cargo zip-off
      • Canvas pants
    • Shorts:
      • Dark green cargo
      • Khaki non cargo
    • Athletic shorts (running, swimming, pajamas) (2)
    • Rain pants
  • Hipwear:
    • Boxer briefs (9)
    • Belts:
      • Leather belt
      • Synthetic belt
  • Torsowear:
    • White short-sleeved dress shirt
    • Short-sleeved casual button-down shirts (4)
    • Cotton T-shirts without words written on them (4)
    • Synth athletic shirts:
      • Short-sleeved
      • Long-sleeved
    • Long-sleeved outdoor work shirt
    • Fleece
    • Sweater
    • Raincoat
  • Headwear:
    • Hair ties (2)
    • Goggles (1)
    • Bandanas (2)
  • Toiletries:
    • Toothbrush
    • Toothpaste
    • Deodorant
    • Wash cloth
    • Nail clippers
    • Small roll of toilet paper in a ziploc bag
  • Medical:
    • Prescriptions for everything
    • Epilepsy:
      • Divalproex
      • Atavan
      • Medical ID bracelet
    • Asthma:
      • Flovent
      • Albeuterol
    • Eyes:
      • Glasses and case
      • Backup glasses and case
      • Contacts
        • Lenses
        • Cases (3)
        • Storage solution
          • Regular
          • Eye drops
      • Prescriptions
    • Retainers
    • Other:
      • Little swiss army knife
      • Wound dressing
      • Gauze
      • Daytime cold medicine
      • Nighttime cold medicine
      • Cough medicine
      • Sleeping medicine
      • Ibuprofen
      • Anti-diarrheal
      • Cortizone
      • Moleskin
      • Medical tape
      • Mouthwash
      • Water-based lubricant
      • Condoms
  • Electrical
    • Watch
    • Headlamp with batteries
    • iPhone
      • Case
      • Charger
    • Earbuds (2)
      • Carrying pouch
    • Laptop
      • Charger
    • USB flash drives (2)
    • Camera
      • Extra memory cards (2)
      • Carrying case
  • Books:
    • Langenscheidt Universal Dictionary Spanish (2011)
    • Manual de gramática (Iguina and Dozier, 2013)
    • Rough Guide to Costa Rica (Drew and McNeil, 2011)
    • Birds of Costa Rica (Garrigues and Dean, 2007)
    • Mammals of Costa Rica (Waindwright, 2007)
    • Naturalist (Wilson, 1994)
  • Beaded headband for keychain
  • Money belt
  • Hand scale for weighing baggage
  • Documents:
    • Passport
    • Passport card
    • Copies of passport (2)
    • e-ticket confirmations
    • Hard copy of contact info: physician, college advisors, IFSA program advisor, IFSA resident director
    • Details of your insurance coverage
      • Call United Healthcare to ask.  Or just go online.
  • Wallet
    • ATM card
    • Credit card
    • Cash
    • Driver’s license
    • Insurance cards
  • Journal
  • Pens (7)
  • Binoculars
  • Geologist’s loupe
  • Towel
  • Plug adapter
  • Pocket knife
  • Cheap Leatherman-like multitool
  • Groundcloth
  • Pocket journal
  • Specimen tags
  • “Princess Mononoke” and “Last of the Mohicans” DVDs (to be used only in cases of extreme homesickness)
  • Present for family: Goofily colored handbag with cheesy decorative dishcloth painted with historic images of Concord

The above fit into three bags: my school backpack (carried on as a “personal item”), my 30L Gregory “weekend pack” (carried on as my “carry-on bag”), and my 80L Gregory trekking pack (checked).  It weighed in at a total of 65 pounds, of which I was insanely proud, as I often have trouble making the 50 pound limit for each checked bag.


Pre-departure Reflections: ¿Pura qué?

Time July 11th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

[The following was written and posted after my arrival in Costa Rica due to difficulties in setting up the blog, but it represents my pre-departure thoughts.]


Even before I decided to study abroad in Costa Rica, I had heard about pura vida from some friends who had vacationed there.  As I remember, they described it as a good-for-everything phrase that connoted a deeply held value of easy-going-ness.  One called it almost Buddhist in nature.

My first reaction to their description of pura vida was suspicion.  It sounded a lot more like a tourism slogan crafted by a corporate committee than an idiom organically born from post-colonial Roman Catholicism.  With tourism so robustly integrated into the Costa Rican economy, it would be easy to imagine that such a slogan would appear to be a cultural phenomenon to visitors whose interactions were entirely limited to that slice of the economy.  I just could not believe it was used as widely—or as sincerely—as my friends said.

My cynicism was jostled when IFSA Butler’s Eryn Espín-Kudzinski signed off the first of her many pre-departure emails with the phrase.  Her third email featured a full explanation:


The most commonly used phrase in Costa Rica is “¡Pura vida!” It literally means “pure life,” but the saying goes beyond its simple translation: it’s a way of life. This Spanish expression is used in informal settings as a greeting, a farewell and as a way to express gratitude or satisfaction. It can also refer to someone who is nice and friendly.


I realized with more than a little shame that I had not given my friends enough credit.  And the phrase continued to crop up wherever Costa Rica was concerned.  A past IFSA Butler blogger had written about it.  The Rough Guide to Costa Rica mentioned it.  And yet something about pura vida still made me uncomfortable.

It dawned on me that it was the phrase itself that I didn’t like.  I still don’t know exactly what it means, but it seems to have something to do with being carefree. And I do not like being carefree.  It seems philosophically immature at best, and hedonistic at worst.  I’ve always imagined the worth of one’s character to be the sum of the convictions one holds and the rigidity with which one applies them. Doesn’t being carefree necessarily conflict with conviction and rigidity?

I’ve been trying hard for a long time to live ever more rigidly and deliberately: to be full of cares, not free of them.  So initially I thought I would just have to throw pura vida on the pile of cultural oddities that were interesting to examine but ultimately useless to me.  And I was I little sad to have to accept that distance between my host culture and me.

But, to make many long stories short, things have been happening.  Not the way I planned them to, and not the way I wanted them to.  Despite all my deliberateness.  Despite all my determination.  And maybe because of it.  I have little to show for my increasingly rigid character, and much to lead me to question it.

In the past few years, I’ve made a number of big transitions.  Before each one I deliberated on my goals, set my intentions, and proceeded accordingly.  But for this transition, the biggest I’ve made yet, I simply cannot find any sense of guiding conviction.  I find myself in a spot of vulnerability.  It is the last place I would want to be at a time like this, but it might also be the best place to be.  At the very least, it allows me to explore the concept—the lifestyle—of pura vida with an open mind.  And something tells me that I will end up not just learning about pura vida, but learning from it.