I had been up almost all night.
Airplanes were so much more cramped than I remembered. The TV built into the back of the seat was malfunctioning so the light glared endlessly in my face in the dark. While the two passengers beside me had managed to doze off, I had been experimenting with all kinds of strange positions, attempting to pull my hood far over my face to block out the TV.
Suddenly, I remembered I hadn’t read something I was supposed to have read before arriving in Costa Rica. The plane would be landing in about half an hour. Hoping I had enough time and shoving back the complaints of my tired eyes, I pulled out my laptop and began reading. The space on the jet was so narrow, I had to crane my neck downward to see what was on the screen. I shouldn’t have worried about it at that point, but I didn’t want to be at a loss if anyone asked me about it (which they didn’t). I wanted to make a good impression at the university where I was studying abroad.
The article I read discussed stepping out and immersing myself in the foreign culture I would be immersed in. It would be a great learning experience, but it would also be confusing and uncomfortable. It made me nervous. What have I done…?
I noticed the sun was rising.
Clouds and distant landscape became buildings and roads as the jet descended in the twilight. I watched the ground with a growing sense of dread.
What have I done? I thought, feeling the fear latching onto my fatigued mind. I was in Costa Rica. I was alone. I had survived most of the trip, but it finally dawned on me how irrevocable this decision was. I would be staying in this country for a month. I had never traveled alone, much less on an airplane, much less out of the country. I would have to rely on my second language here. I had no idea how things worked. Oh gosh. What have I done?
I was shaking when I dismounted the plane. Disheveled and terrified, I trailed after the rest of the passengers down an empty hallway, descended an escalator, and followed signs into a larger area where we lined up for customs. I glanced around at every sign. They displayed both English and Spanish, but I stared at them as if I would soon forget my own native tongue.
I was twenty years old, but I felt like I was eight. Or maybe six. I waited in line, concentrating on not letting my mortification show. My arms and legs quivered annoyingly, and I tried desperately to avoid shaking so hard I would draw attention to myself. I wasn’t panicking. I could handle this. I was an adult. A world traveler…
I wanted to be there. Even if I had had a choice at that point, I wasn’t going to back out.
But oh glory, what in the world had I just gotten myself into?
Studying abroad to improve my Spanish had seemed like such a great, inspiring, ambitious idea. I had expected the transition stage to be a little scary at times, but chock full of opportunities to grow. Clearly, I was thinking in terms of study abroad brochures. I hadn’t seriously understood how deeply the fear could stab.
Regardless of my anxious and sleep-deprived state, I passed through customs without a hitch. They talked to me in English. I found my luggage and managed to locate the entrance of the airport. When I came out, people were lined up by a low wall to the right. Someone asked me if I needed a taxi. Diffidently, I said no.
A man asked me in English with a Spanish accent if I needed the police.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you need the police?” the man said again.
For a fleeting moment, I thought I was in trouble, or something had happened without my knowledge. Maybe I looked a little too traumatized.
Disconcerted and confused, I squeaked, “No, thank you.”
It was just a simple question, but nobody had ever asked me if I needed the police before. Apparently it’s just a normal service in Costa Rica.
Stinging with chagrin at my social awkwardness, I found my group waiting on the sidewalk with a large sign that said Whitworth University. They were American, and we spoke in English as we walked the short distance to a van in the parking garage. I was glad I didn’t have to try to break out my Spanish on top of my sleep-deprivation and unfamiliarity overload.
I sat rather stiffly in the van, watching the scenery out the window with wide eyes as the Whitworth assistant drove aggressively in the early-morning traffic. Everything looked so different. Narrow streets, uneven roads, low buildings crowded along hills. A man was selling newspapers at an intersection where a side road met the highway.
Each of the unfamiliar faces in the car was so much more at ease than I was. They had either been there for a month already and were returning from home, or they had traveled before. I hoped we would be great friends by the time this month was over.
We made it to the Whitworth University campus on the beautiful, forested Monte de la Cruz. Before too long, I was napping in a drafty room with cold tile floors, trying to process everything that had happened. Another student was staying in the room for the time being, but I think she was trying to catch up on sleep too. The next day, I would meet my host family.
I felt like a lost six-year-old again, curled under a fluffy blue comforter on the bottom bunk, sick to my stomach, exhausted but restless.
I still couldn’t believe I was so far from home.