I thank my past self for deciding to study abroad. She didn’t know it, but it was one of the hardest decisions she ever made.
To me, study abroad was something I always wanted to do, like going to college. But while going to college was a life-altering decision, I pretty much knew what to expect based on the experience of my sister, friends, and bits I had picked up over the course of my life from books and the internet. Of course, when I actually got there, it was different, but at least I was in the ballpark.
With study abroad, the glittering phrases of “life-changing experience” and “becoming part of another culture” seemed like great descriptors when I was applying, but I started to realize how insubstantial they really were as I stared at my empty suitcase a week before take-off. Any packing lists I could find online for Costa Rica were intended for a week of ziplining in the rainforest and any packing lists I could find for study abroad were geared towards going to Europe. Any information I could find about living in Costa Rica was skewed toward the retired generation, and I couldn’t find anything about my new hometown, Heredia. Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it.
So I took some good guesses and threw (well, folded neatly. I’m not as wild as I like to pretend.) what I thought I would need into my suitcases while humming along to the “Latino pop” (ahem, reggaeton) on the radio. Then I ventured forth alone into a country where I did not know anyone.
Now, eight weeks in, I have more of idea of what I should have expected.
- The food is nothing like Mexican food. Sure, in theory, I knew the food would be different, but as a Texas girl, I was still expecting enchiladas and refried beans. So when I read I would eat beans and rice daily, I was picturing something completely different than the white rice and black beans I ended up eating on a daily basis. I still like it, I just wasn’t expecting it. The food doesn’t fall in the same category as Mexican food, or any other kind of food I’ve ever tasted. For example, not only are tamales made in a completely different way–wrapped in banana leaves with rice, beef, and other foods ground into a paste–, but they’re actually traditionally only eaten at Christmastime, when they’re eaten “for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for days, and everyone gains a couple of kilos.”
I’ve learned to eat everything my host mom cooks, even if it contains something I wouldn’t even look at in the U.S. (I’m usually a picky eater). It’s a lot healthier than what I’m used to, and I can feel the difference in my energy, even if it has made the concept of “digestive process” synonymous with “adventure.”
- Tica fashion. I had read that the ladies of Costa Rica usually dress up and that it’s not common for girls to wear t-shirts or throw their hair in a ponytail, and that’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tica wear Nike shorts or any of its variants. The internet told me to expect that they dress more conservatively, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s true. They almost always wear skinny jeans, but they also often wear the types of shirts that they have to pick out their bras to match, and outfits for going out are on a level with those I have seen in the U.S.
Quite a few guys have long hair, and they generally pull it off fairly well (still not my preference), but it is rare to see a girl with short hair, especially a pixie cut. That being said, everyone has their individual style just like anywhere else, and while I’m glad I packed a higher proportion of nice clothes than I wear in Texas, I don’t worry too much about what I wear since my blonde hair instantly identifies me as a gringa anyway.
- Be prepared to do something you’re good at. Do I need my volleyball court shoes and ankle braces? Nah, I’ll never play volleyball in a fútbol nation. You know, unless I accidentally end up on the university volleyball team or something. Actually it would have been a good idea to seek out something I’m good at. After fumbling the language all day every day, it’s nice to be reminded I’m competent at something. I got lucky and had something fall into my lap, but I think it’s a good idea for people to actively seek out something they like to do. Just come prepared. My lovely mother is sending my volleyball stuff to me, but it’s expensive and inconvenient, and I had room in my suitcase, dang it.
- It is so hard to make friends. Not only is there a huge language barrier issue, but the university system is different, and not living in a dorm with social events makes life a challenge. I always wondered why the exchange students at UNT always stuck with each other, but now I understand. Here, as a group of gringos, we’re all going through the same thing and can express ourselves as adults, something that should never be undervalued. The hard part is that it sometimes hinders the language learning. If the Ticos knew how excited we get when we have a conversation with them, they would probably think we’re strange. I had the good sense (luck) to choose to be a part of the language exchange club offered which paired me up with three random Ticos that I now meet with on a weekly basis, so that’s a nice way to have guaranteed friends.
- Stock up on the toiletries. I first had the thought that I wish I had stocked up when I had to deal with finding deodorant after a couple of weeks here. It wasn’t too hard–I went to the supermarket–but then I discovered a couple of weeks later how expensive contact solution is. I paid roughly $14 for what is about $6 for a name-brand in the U.S. I still don’t know if I was gypped, or if the price is comparable everywhere, but I’ve noticed that shampoo and conditioner and other necessities are pricey–to varying degrees–as well. Life would have been a lot easier if I had just packed what I needed for the semester. It also would have been a wise decision since it would leave room in my suitcase for what I bring back.
- Spanish class was not enough. Even before I applied to study abroad, I put extra effort into learning Spanish. I made high A’s in all my Spanish classes and listened to music in Spanish and read Harry Potter in Spanish and watched movies in Spanish, but it wasn’t enough. I started out with a low proficiency level, and life did not improve nearly fast enough for my sanity. My grand plan for Spanish prep was to periodically listen to Spanish talk radio–frustrating, since I couldn’t understand much–throughout the summer and spend the last week intensively reading and watching movies in Spanish. Now I wish I had actively memorized vocabulary and spent even more time actively listening. Even five words a day and a movie or couple of hours of radio-time, podcasts, or YouTube videos a week would have added up over the span of a summer, semester, year. Even here, I like watching familiar movies dubbed in Spanish and reading to expand my vocabulary. Even though I’m not sure where to find dubbed movies in the U.S., watching movies or shows with subtitles in Spanish is good for picking up conversational Spanish.
- Pick classes with care. We all struggled to find classes that are relevant enough to transfer. I didn’t really give it a second thought since I’ll be here for two semesters and my university will only accept 16 transfer hours anyway. I am glad I chose classes that not only interest me, but also in which I already grasp the basic concepts. As much as it would be nice to get certain classes that are required by my home university out of the way, there is no way I could motivate myself to read however many pages a week of something that would put me to sleep in English. I tried to take a botany class, but even though I found it interesting, the combination of science, memorizing, and Spanish didn’t work out for me. One of my friends is still in the class, and she loves it, but she already knows the material in English.
- Procrastination is not an option. There was a terrible weekend I landed two essays, three presentations, and a poetic creation that I barely survived. This would have been a daunting task in English, but in Spanish it was almost impossible. I made it through with some concessions in quality and a period of time curled up in a ball on my bed. I came out with self-awarded warrior status a renewed distrust of procrastination.
One thing I am glad I did not know is how hard it would be. I may have trembled at the perils of the journey and never left the security of the home that I now know I love. Instead, I naively threw myself into a life with no emergency exits and I constantly surprise myself with what I’m capable of when I don’t have an option.