It’s hard to believe it has been nearly three weeks since I started packing for what would be my final year of undergraduate spent studying abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica. Three years of experience in mental health advocacy and suicide prevention drove me to gain Spanish as a second language before pursuing post-baccalaureate and graduate studies. While mindlessly tossing my staple maxi skirts and basic tees into my luggage, I anticipated how fast I had hoped to pick up the Spanish language, what my host family would be like, and what my courses abroad would teach me during this journey.
Thus far, my adjustment in Heredia has been a roller coaster of emotions from excitement, frustrations, joy, and intense homesickness. August 27th officially marked my full second week of living and studying in Heredia. I met my host madre and host hermano in the San Jose International Airport on August 13th around midnight. Driving to my new home, the first thing I noticed was the roaring noise from the streets. The first two nights of sleeping was a challenge because of how loud the motorcycles and cars were when driving by the house. I am surprised to see how quickly I have been able to adapt to sleeping with the sounds from outside.
My host university is Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, comprised of a student body population of 15,000 students. As a student in the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) program, I am in courses with only other students in my program. My professors are all very nurturing and passionate, especially my Spanish Track 1 professor who has lived and studied in various countries and is always quoting famous literature to remind us to make the most of our youth. Because this course is intensive and moves from Beginning Spanish all the way through Intermediate Spanish in one semester, the professor moves rapido! As challenging as the pace and the homework assignments have been, I continue in being diligent by making flashcards and doing extra exercises to help my understanding as a first-time Spanish learner. Though very broken, I am pleased to say I have had several basic conversations in Spanish with my host family!
Some initial frustrations I have faced with the culture within my first two weeks has been adjusting to the machismo aspect of Latin America, particularly being excessively catcalled and stared at. During my previous time studying abroad in India, I faced unwanted attention as a woman and never would have thought a city would come close to even remotely comparing, but I was very, very wrong. Luckily, my fellow feminist companeras and I have found sharing our stories as a healthy start to our three hour courses because we are able to joke about how those particular type of men here are chanchos (my Spanish professor taught the class that useful term).
Beyond any other frustration, the hardest part of my adjustment has been the intense waves of homesickness I have been experiencing. Because Heredia is relatively close to my home in Houston, Texas, I did not anticipate feeling as emotionally distressed by it as I have been feeling. At the root of it, I believe adjusting to my host family has been emotionally difficult for me. Humor and family-closeness are strongly valued in the home in which I was raised, which seems to contrast with the family environment I am currently living in. The coldness I have experienced since arriving has made me feel very solitero.
Before the start of my third week of school, I made the conscious decision to communicate to my host family and program coordinator my feelings of loneliness. Thankfully, both my host family and program coordinator were receptive. Tomorrow, I will meet with my program coordinator to discuss the possibility of a new family placement.
Luckily, my first day joining the university’s chess club left me walking home feeling overwhelming grateful for feeling so welcomed. I was a little nervous about joining a club here because my Spanish is very basic and also because I was nervous the instructor would not permit an international student, given the language barrier. I was so moved when the instructor, Martin, a bubbly and enthusiastic chess coach told me I was officially “pate le familia de Ajadrez.” The club meets twice a week, and already in the past four practices, I have made several friends. They’ve all been so patient with me in explaining the daily puzzles and lessons to me slowly and communicating with gestures. I’m so excited to grow with my chess family and hope come time for my departure in May, I will be as advanced a player as most of the other members are.
My friend Gabriel from the club even met with me over the weekend to play chess with me and also was kind enough to treat me to Columbian ice cream. Mucho tieme pasa en la Parque Central communicating with my basic Espanol and his basic Inglis and with a Spanish to English dictionary (and a lot of laughter of course). I’ll always remember spending time laughing with ice cream and chess as the best part of my first week in Heredia.
These past two weeks in Heredia have truly been a journey in and of itself. In terms of my growth with the Spanish language, I have such a long journey ahead of me filled with many more challenges, I’m sure. With the support and encouragement from my loved ones, I know I have the strength to achieve my goal of fluency which drove me to spend my senior year of college abroad. I know learning Spanish and gaining a stronger understanding of Central American culture and politics is important to my growth as a future professional and the changes I wish to see happen in my community. It is with great wonder and curiosity, I look forward to the many experiences which lie ahead in Heredia!