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Pura Vida, Costa Rica

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

Watching from the plane window as the sun began to sink below the rolling surface of the clouds was a surreal phenomenon.  I told myself the last time that I was on a plane – when I was on route to Costa Rica – that I was embarking on the grandest adventure of my life.  There are none compared to the stories I now possess, and I never imagined my experience would lead me in the directions that it did.  Unforeseen trials and adventures were had by all – close friendships were made, but most of all there was a sense of fulfillment amongst my fifteen classmates aboard the returning vessel.   Some cried of happiness, and some of sadness; some cried because the conclusion had registered, and others because the reintroduction to a reminisced life was like greeting an old friend.  I, however, sat and watched the flaps while the wheels steadily projected from the bottom of this flying ship.  Overwhelmed with the memories that I now possessed, I read the unfasten seatbelt sign above our heads, and unbuckled from the greatest ride of my life.

Some expected my group and I to have reverse culture shock upon our return to the United States, but I felt the adjustment to be a comfortable one. I was content to leave one adventure and resume the previous with new perspectives and experiences that would forever change my frame of mind.  In a matter of hours, I regressed to English, familiar faces, and the familiar atmosphere of my university.  At first, it seemed like another weekend adventure – like the ones that were so prevalent over the course of my past semester, but when I remained in this place I began to get restless.  Many new assignments passed through my mind and I was welcomed again into my old, over scheduled life.  The mechanization of life in the States compared to that of San Jose, and the paradises that I had visited, was the most challenging readjustment.  Also, I missed the natural food that had graced my plate frequently in my host country.  My body quickly felt the effects of the unnatural foods that are unavoidable in the States, and I have grown very health-conscious as a result.

By the time I became reacquainted with my schedule, and my upcoming tasks, I grew to greatly appreciate the communication that was always accessible to me.  In both the United States and Costa Rica, I had the communication necessary to remain content in each respective location.  Before departing for a new country for the first time, I was very scattered across my many passions.  I am involved in a number of organizations, and loved seeing multiple groups of friends throughout my day.  Costa Rica encouraged me to see another side of myself that is stronger than I previously believed.  I was abroad with about thirteen students from my university, and the majority of them were introverted.  This was one of the greatest blessings that this experience had to offer, because in addition to the friends that I made in Costa Rica – I decelerated to find a cohesive unit of students that truly supported each other throughout our four-month excursion.   They taught me how to love and listen to others and I am truly thankful for the characteristics and kindness that each of them added to the group’s dynamic.

In Costa Rica, a common expression is, “Pura Vida,” which is translated to mean pure life.  Altogether, I believe that is what I discovered while outside of the United States.  I went abroad in search of a new culture. I sought complete immersion into language and lifestyle that were unlike my own.  Costa Rica had plenty of differences, and surely enough to fulfill these desires.  However, there was something even greater that I discovered.  I found culture to look like a circle, in several facets of its existence there are cycles, rituals, and behaviors that make it rich. A circle is my chosen symbol because it is the essence of the whole.  While searching for contrast, I discovered comparison.  Culture, regardless of location can be whittled down to the same items that make us all inherently human.  We have the need for stability, for love, and for community, etc., and it is fascinating to see the ways in which a different country can accomplish the same feat.  When one becomes an ethnographer and sees an outwardly dissimilar world from within – it becomes visible that the individual is attempting to examine a similarity’s difference.  Pure life, or pura vida, is what lies at the heart of society’s inner-workings, and this is how we identify with one another.  Whether I am in Costa Rica, or in the United States, the hearts of people around me are not to be contrasted, but rather compared.

Immediately upon returning, my family and friends wanted to know what I had learned from the experience and the tales of my several adventures.  This is hard because I am continuing to grow as a result of this experience, and this process is just beginning.  With each new adventure comes an expansion of mind that will only continue to place into practice its newfound ideas.  I am grateful for the family I have made, and the memories I have shared with so many in such a short period of time.  So now I begin another adventure-


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Filed under Central America, Culture Shock, Dan in Costa Rica

Define Homesick

A couple days ago we were talking about the impending end of our program and one of the other girls asked me if I was homesick.  I think I surprised both of us with my answer because I said no.  I said that since I go to college on the other side of the country from my family, I already don’t see them during a semester so I’m not seeing any less of them.  And with Facebook and Skype I’m in contact with them just as much if not more so while I’m here than when I’m in Boston.  The only difference is that in Boston I can pick up a phone at any time during the day and make a call to hear my mom and dad’s voices.  I can’t do that here in part due to the six hour time difference and in part due to the expense of international calling.  Instead I use chat and video chat and they follow this blog to hear about the day to day and special experiences that are just too long and involved to share during a quick conversation between classes.

That’s not to say I don’t miss home.  I do.  I miss being able to cook whatever and whenever I want.  I miss the ability to walk out into the streets and be able to communicate fluently with every person I see.

To know exactly what is expected and what is appropriate and what is not is something that we learn during childhood.  In this full immersion study abroad I have become a child all over again relearning how to interact with my surroundings.

Unlike most children however, I have even less of a vocabulary than a four year old learning right from wrong in preschool.  I also have my own preconceived notions that I need to overcome and evaluate.  Notions such as the appropriate reaction to a guy who cat calls me when I’m walking down the street being to laugh it off, make eye contact, and keep walking.   In Morocco you are supposed to stay quiet, eye contact is seen as an invitation, and you definitely keep walking and don’t react.

Everyone misses something or someone at some point in their lives.  For me, homesickness has always been a specter of overwhelming anxiety and a desperate urge just to return to what is familiar and known and therefore safe.  I have felt this before on other international experiences.  I felt this on my first day of college orientation when I was on my own in a crowd of four hundred other students on the other side of the country from my family and everything seemed to be happening at warp speed and I had no clue how to respond to any of the people around me, where to go, what to say, or who anybody was.  I broke down in tears and was on the verge of returning to my dorm room to hide and curl up with a book and my phone when one of the older students saw me and came over to give me a hug and guide me through the process making sure to give me her phone number and introducing me to other students who were in a similar situation.

I had a professor once who told us to try to see the world through a child’s eyes.  She said that children see everything around them as bright and new.  Even their own hands and feet are a surprise to them.  I have been forced to do that this semester.  Living in a home without western plumbing and needing to go to the public baths once a week in order to thoroughly wash reacquainted me with my body in unexpected ways.  Being unable to communicate with words and facing the difficulty of pronouncing those words that I should remember forces me to relearn the non-verbal communication that we all take for granted and may not even notice as adults.  In a culture that was more similar or in more similar surroundings, this challenge of communication might have been seen as frustrating or embarrassing as I can’t even talk about basic needs.  However, here where everything is so different, it seems new even as I walk through doors that have been standing for almost 1,000 years.  There is no ability to compare the situations I find myself in here with the situations I face at home and so when I don’t know how to react, there is no anxiety.  There is no safety net to fall back into, nowhere to escape to and most importantly when I fall I have to get up and keep going.  People here are understanding and hospitable.  If I fail, they will point out how and why but they won’t judge me as bad or wrong, simply different.

The last item on the packing list that SIT sent to us before our departure for Morocco was a sense of humor.  This is the lightest item in your suitcase and the most important one.  The larger your sense of humor, the better.  After all, it needs to be big enough to cover you and all your situations, not just the external situations of others.  So long as I can laugh at myself, laugh with others, then I know I’ll be just fine!

*Note: this graph on Culture-Shock shows the stages that many of our study abroad participants experience.  It seems like Danielle has embraced the cultural differences (stage 5), so it may be hard for her to leave Morocco when the program finally ends.  

Culture Shock Graph

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Filed under Danielle in Morocco, middle east