“Pase,” she mumbles, waving her hand.
Is that the verb pasar? That’s subjunctive isn’t it? I watch people walk up to the desk, and wonder how I’m going to ask her what papers I need, which way the pickup area is, realizing at this moment that I can’t really form a single sentence in Spanish. This is one of the first times I’ve been relieved to wait in such a long line. Before traveling to this country, I’d had dreams about descending through the clouds to see sunlit mountains spotted with colorful houses, a beautiful city bustling with oxcarts and smiling faces. On the day I arrive, the rain is too thick to see out the airport window. The first person I meet is a woman behind a desk at customs.
“Pase.” I go up to the desk, holding my passport, return ticket info, and the travel information I filled out on the plane ride. The woman stamps a few things, says something I don’t understand while pointing toward the hallway, and slides me my passport. I say “Mucho gusto,” which at the time I think means “Thank you,” and the woman calls another traveler to “pase” toward the desk.
She didn’t even tell me “Pura Vida.”
Finally, I am placed in a car, and driven through the streets of San Jose, where lanes are just guidelines and following distances for cars are measured in finger-widths. Vendors stand soaking wet in the rain trying to sell us air fresheners. Billboards tell me that cheeseburgers cost $500. Every house I see had windows covered with bars and fences lined with razor wire. This trip to my homestay was perfect in its own way, because it lowered my expectations to the point where I thought this trip would be full of horrible weather and people who neither understood me nor wanted to see my gringo face in their country. Fortunately, this was an unrealistic view of what Costa Rica is actually like. Since that day I have been on three terrific trips outside San Jose, finished a Spanish class at Universidad Veritas that taught me more in one month than I ever could have imagined, and started a teaching internship that definitely fulfills the goal to leave my comfort zone. The most important thing I’ve learned so far—and if you plan to go outside the country I suggest you realize this fact early on—is that cultural differences do exist, and you will be the one doing the adjusting. The most uncomfortable parts of your new culture are not going to disappear, so you have to get used to them.
I started my internship during my second week here, and that’s when things started getting weird. During my orientation at the university I had been given a wavy graph depicting the “ups and downs of culture-shock.” Knowing how low on the Y-axis I was didn’t make the process any easier. For most of week 3 I almost couldn’t get out of bed, and speaking Spanish gave me a headache. It felt like the entire Costa Rican culture was a batch of bad food that I kept forcing my body to take in. The people here didn’t speak my language, and no matter how much I improved my Spanish I’d never make a connection with them. The students I taught at the tutoring center made fun of my speaking skills to the point where I left the classroom, slid into the bathroom, and locked the door behind me saying, “remember…you can’t kill them.” The air of the city was dirty and polluted, and the weather would pour rain one minute and bake me in the sun the next. I started to hate the whole situation; I remember walking down the street one afternoon gritting my teeth and saying, “It’s not demasiado caliente…it’s too f—ing hot!”
I led my first science tutoring session with a teenager named Gaby. I’d held conversations with Spanish speakers before, but now that I was talking to a true local, I was completely lost. What few words I could make out, I didn’t understand. This was the first time I realized that native spanish is not even close to classroom spanish. When Gaby repeated herself to me the first time, she started of with “Digamos.” The second time, “Tranquilo.” And the third time, she just gave up, shook her head and said “Pura Vida.”
Finally, that Thursday, I met a group of 4 older students who I would be teaching in the night-time. Instead of scoffing at my spanish skills, they worked with me to communicate. They were willing to learn, and to help me learn. This has made all the difference in my confidence at the internship.
It’s amazing when a piece of the outside world turns so dramatically from bad to good in your mind, and you realize that nothing has changed but yourself. And now, after spending a full month in San Jose, Costa Rica, I’m getting a strange sense of home-sickness that has nothing to do with missing the states. My lifestyle and my view of the world is changing. If home is where the heart is, it follows that a change of heart should make you feel homesick.
7 Tips for anyone traveling to Costa Rica—and other countries as well:
It’s your job to adjust. This means taking initiative to meet people, learning how to act in new situations, and conforming to the social norms. This last part is most difficult for those who don’t like being passive, but it’s important to remember that you’re a visitor here, and norms aren’t about to change because you don’t like them. For example, for ladies, there’s a lot of machisimo cat-calling in Costa Rica, which up North would be seen as offensive. It’s best to ignore that. Another thing is that people touch each other a lot, even when they’re just telling you directions. If that makes you worried about pickpockets, keep your wallet in your front pocket. If that makes you uncomfortable on another level…deal. One more thing: local men here don’t wear shorts, so if you’re going to be here for a while bring long pants. Once you get used to the hotter climate it’s actually pretty comfortable. This last one is definitely optional, but something to consider.
Take caution. Be careful at night, because things do happen. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, a city thing or what, but people have already been in dangerous situations this month just walking home at night. This isn’t supposed to scare anyone away from Costa Rica or even San Jose, because it’s actually a very nice place as long as you are careful. Just stay in groups, and don’t drink too much, because you’re not on a college campus. The city is safe if you are. Also, don’t leave anything important unattended. This seems obvious, but I come from a town where we don’t even lock our doors, so it takes a little conscious effort to keep myself in line. Besides your other possessions, the most important one is yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, and stay in shape while your traveling, because you want your immune system to be in top condition to deal with whatever new bacteria it’s getting to know. I’ve heard mixed things about the water in Costa Rica, but in San Jose it’s generally safe to drink from tap. For other places, near the Caribbean especially, use your discretion.
If you are encountered with a yes/no question, ALWAYS say yes, usually. This means, whenever possible, do something, anything new that you’ve never done before. If you don’t have the time or money to leave on a great adventure, there’s still plenty to do in the city. For example, last weekend I stayed in San Jose to study, but I still took the time to get out of the house to take photos of the awesome street art in the city. You don’t even have to leave the house to do something new. Just always be on the lookout for something that you can learn or explore. Of course, don’t always say yes, in accord with rule #2.
Bring a cocoon. Have at least one activity that can take you back home in your mind. No matter how your day goes, you can go back into this cocoon. For me, I play guitar or pool on miniclip.com. But keep in mind that nothing great is going to happen until you leave your cocoon and become a beautiful butterfly, beetle, ant, or parasite…just be yourself.
Speak Spanish as much as possible. Costa Rica has a lot of English speakers here, and you won’t believe how easy it is to go a whole day without saying a single word of Spanish. But you’re here to learn about the language and yourself, so don’t fall back onto that crutch. Also, research the culture: what’s going on in the government, in the environment, what are the local people most proud of in their country? Remember that living abroad is the best way to learn not only the language but the culture as well.
Enjoy the oddities: Invest in an umbrella, because rain doesn’t fall softly here, especially during rainy season and rain jackets just don’t cut it. If you like peanut butter, good luck. In Costa Rica it’s hard to find and super expensive. The drivers around here are very aggressive, so unless you’re from Boston you will be taken by surprise. Don’t pay too much attention to the gates and razor wire that are on pretty much every house in San Jose. At first the high security made me feel like I was in a prison town, but now it’s just another part of the city. Most importantly, start listening to Men at Work and The Police before you come here, because Costa Rica has a love affair with 80’s music. This I didn’t know of before I came to the country, but it surprised me in the best way. There are a lot of places to watch live cover bands that are really good.
And, my most timely advice is this: If you can, Stay for more than one month! It has taken me almost exactly that amount of time to really “show up.” If I had to leave this country in a few days, after living here a full month, I would be incredibly disappointed, not because my time here hasn’t been amazing, but because it seems like I just now got the ball rolling.