Costa Rica part III: Tonteras, Shiro, y Choque de Cultura

The final installment of comments, much more brief than the other two posts:

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The last two weeks of my time in Costa Rica passed quietly. I finished my excursion with A.

I was talking with A about how I am embarrassed to take photos because I don’t want people to think I’m the kind of tourist that is just there to see things and be served in luxury. A said if you want to see the intentions of a foreigner, you listen to them. If they are speaking the language, or at least trying to, then you can tell that they’re here to learn.

I guess here many people put Americans on a pedestal. And I worry that people will think that I think I’m better. But what A said made me a little less ashamed/afraid of my skin color and my blue eyes and American Spanish. I’m here to learn and to make friends. That means something.

I finally found a Costa Rican food that I do not like: Tamarind. I hear it’s kind of an acquired taste, or that it’s not uncommon for people to all out dislike it. I tried to entertain thoughts of drinking the entire glass of tamarind fresco, but I couldn’t do it.

G and his brother C are ridiculous. I walked to the panadería (bakery) with them and it was tonteras (silliness) the entire way.

One day we went to hang out with E and I, G and R’s youngest son and wife. They live near a lot of family, so R took me to go meet everyone. It was awkward for me, but it meant a lot.

G adopted a little white, spotted Chihuahua puppy. We were thinking of something along the lines of white. We considered “Blanquito.” G asked me what snow is in English, but that word’s kind of tough to pronounce for a name. Offhand, I mentioned that white in Japanese is “shiro.” The next day, G was talking to his granddaughter and mentioning how “Shiro” sounded like a good name for the dog. It officially became the puppy’s name, though it’s pronounced more like “cheer-oh” by most people. R kept pronouncing it “chirop.” She doesn’t like dogs, but I think she’s warming up little by little to Shiro.

On June 1, we went grocery shopping and I strolled after my adopted family taking it all in. I remembered my first time, and I was kind of terrified. I was super comfortable that day, and it was nice.

R took me with her, her sister-in-law, and a neighbor to a country club to go swimming. I felt a bit like a hillbilly, since the place was so fancy, but it was fun.

I tended to have long talks with G in the evenings after R went to bed, but on one particular night, we all sat up talking. I let off steam about my anxieties of the impending travel day.

Shiro destroyed my headphones.

I watched an old horror movie with G, and I thought i could handle it, but it was quite sickening. G likes horror movies. He’s better at making himself dwell on positive things, I think, so maybe movies like that don’t get stuck in his mind as much they do in mine.

The first time I left G and R, I cried. I had never experienced anything like what they did for me, and I didn’t know if we would ever see each other again. This time, I didn’t feel so broken, because I know we’ll see each other again. I’m also, admittedly, more accustomed to goodbyes.

I still almost cried leaving them, though.

The travel day was exhausting. We landed after midnight, and I got home around 1:30am. The next couple of days I spent in a state of unmotivation, sleeping off headaches. Today I am feeling better, though I’m still culture shocked coming back.

I need to start getting everything in order to move to California in August, and I’m not yet ready to face the adult world. I don’t want to have to rush so quickly to the next thing as has been my habit for the last few years. I just want to sit for a while.

But I do have some time to do that.

Costa Rica Part II: Quepos, Cartago, y muchos pensamientos andando en bús

More freewriting from my phone. I can’t believe I only have 11 days left here. I’m anxious to get back to the United States and start working more hardcore on preparing to move to California, but I will also be really sad to leave.

I find myself in a predicament now. I miss my home country, but as soon as I go back, I’ll miss Costa Rica. I still can’t quite believe that I’m here. That I made it and have already spent almost three weeks abroad completely of my own volition, to spend time with loved ones, make new friends, and see new places. It’s been wonderful.

Already, we talk of the next time. I hope that time comes soon.

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Day 7

It’s raining super hard.

No cockroaches for a while.

I finished a notebook. :)

Fun fact, cockroaches undergo incomplete metamorphosis. They don’t have a grub stage. Which I appreciate. I hate grubs, and cockroaches are gross enough.

I injured something I thought was a cockroach but was actually something probably harmless. I think it eats ants and stuff. I let it live. I knew it was probably in pain because I smashed it, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. It slowly wandered around for a while. I found it dead under my bed the next morning. It looked like some kind of isopod (same family as saw bugs and roly-polies. A cute little bug. I feel bad for hurting it. :’((

Day 8

I couldn’t sleep until like 4am. So I woke up late.

I spent a long time working up the nerve to bestow G and R’s grandkids’ birthday presents. I was afraid it would be kind of lame of me to give them something I would enjoy…since I’m obsessed with writing.and K was excited about the quality of notebooks. He looked at it for a long time and showed people. It made me happy.

Day 9

We’re goin’ to the beach! Quepos in the Puntarenas province.

In San Rafael, the buildings are close together, the roads narrow and uneven and often dirty, there are gates everywhere on everything and a lot of signs have been bleached by the sun. Where I come from, this betrays a poor, often dangerous area, and I think that freaked me out the first time I was here.

But it’s not that way. There are different rules, different ways of thinking and different societal priorities and availability of resources. Perhaps that’s why I thought Costa Rica looked eerily like the United States. It’s very westernized in some ways, but it’s very much its own country and things looked similar, but perhaps more in a convergent evolution kind of deal.

I keep randomly thinking that I hope I get into the AAU illustration program, but then I remember that I already have.

The beach in Quepos is so hot and humid omg.

There’s a show here called “Caso Cerrado.” (Case Closed). It’s super dramatic. Like Judge Judy except probably more dramatic. Latin American TV is interesting. It has vibes of Japanese variety shows.

Somebody just buzzed by on one of those things you see in the mall or airport.

I fell asleep in a hammock and woke up and the sun had already set. Dang.

G offered me a pastilla de miel (honey pill). It tastes like a cough drop.

I have gathered that “chuncha” means “thing.” I’m probably wrong.

G y R have still been telling people about my robot brain, about how es como máchina and they’ve been trying to find ways to quitar la máchina. I fell asleep in the hammock and I think they counted that as a victory.

Day 10

We slept outside because it was so hot. I slept in spurts. It started thundering in the middle of the night, but it never all out rained, though I was concerned. There were a bunch of black ants freaking out over a dead avejón (kind of like a junebug), and some made it onto my inflatable mattress. Something bit my hand a few times in the night. Bugs don’t leave me alone. R says, “Sara es tan dulce por los bichos.”

It’s 6am and I am awake. Not sure what to think of this.

We were about to enter the beach when they asked me if I had brought my passport. Apparently, I need it? Maybe I wasn’t paying attention earlier? I guess the park needs my passport so they can charge me more for being a foreigner.

R’s brother asks for directions for everything.

Saw a big red dragonfly. :)

Went to Manuel Antonio Parque Nacional. Saw sloths and capuchins and crabs and hermit crabs and iguanas, sat in the sea and got a little sunburnt.

Eating on the beach was prohibited, of which I was informed the moment someone deposited a bunch of chips into my hands. I ate them as quickly as I could. I’m a foreigner, I should behave myself.

G likes to take pictures of me sleeping. He’s a huge perpetual tease. He should make a collage or something…

Missed the sunset again because I was sleeping in the hammock. For like three hours…but at least I wasn’t the only one sleepin. Three of the others hung out and napped. It was pretty fun. Though, without fail, G got a gross sleeping picture of me.

I burnt my shoulders on the beach. I’m not sure why I thought bringing SPF 50 was a good idea. It’s like plastic. So intense it doesn’t absorb and it rubs off like weak silly putty. Luckily, my face didn’t burn. It gets pink enough because it looks practically transparent here. And my face skin gets really sad for a long time when it burns.

I’m in Costa Rica with my adopted Costa Rican family talking Spanish in the background, listening to Japanese music, and writing/editing in English. What is my life? Besides colorful and confused?

I think it’s silly little wall lizards that make kissy chirpy sounds at night in the walls. In the house in Heredia, I thought it was a neighbor’s late-night parrot or something, but there are lots of lizards here in Quepos, and I’m always hearing the chirping from near where they are hiding.

This evening, I’m extremely tired and I’m unnerved because I don’t think I should be this exhausted. Perhaps it’s just the last few days I’ve spent without much of a chance to stop socializing and retreat unashamed into my head.

Day 11

A weird night got even weirder. R fell ill and had to go to the hospital. I was moved inside, while everyone else prepared the house to leave in the morning. Nobody slept all night, except me. I slept for a few hours.

The next morning I waited around for a long time. There are a bunch of magpies outside flirting and feeding their babies, and chirping lizards in the walls.

An iguana has come to hang out. I want to give it food, but I’m being plagued by bugs as it is. I don’t need other animals wanting food from me.

I’m going to R’s brother’s house in Heredia because R and G are at the hospital. I was really stuck in my head today, unable to understand or speak much. For a long time, I was too timid to ask how R was doing. I felt like a little kid, or like I had regressed to the first time I was here. It was extremely frustrating.

I stayed at their house for an hour or so, after which R and G’s son picked me up and brought me home. G was sleeping. R was still at the hospital, but doing better. I talked with people for a while. When G woke up, we talked for a long time, which was much needed. I finally got out of my head talking to him and his daughter-in-law.

Day 12

I slept in so much longer than I wanted. Now there are lots of people here and it’s 11:30am and I just sat up. R’s already back home, which was a surprise to me. She’s still not 100%, but she seems to be herself again. She’s sleeping right now.

I should just get my computer because I’m internetting up a storm on my phone…but I don’t want to.

I started drawing and next thing I knew, one of the grandkids was sitting, drawing next to me. We drew pictures together for a long time.

Day 13

I’m leaving for Cartago today, on invitation by A, one of the students renting space in G and R’s home. I’m going to return on Monday. I think it will be better for R to relax if I’m not around.

I’m feeling more confident now around the house, after G and I talked for a long time, that I was like family, so I could go ahead and do whatever, make myself at home without worrying about stepping on toes. So far it’s been good.

G is listening to 70’s love songs. He likes romantic music.

The roads are narrow and bumpy and filled with cars, yet buses go with little trouble.

Sitting on the bus, I’m kind of aware of the fact that I’m white. Sharp nose, light hair, light, rosey skin tone, blue eyes. People don’t stare or anything, but I’m aware I’m tall and of a different color palette, and definitely not invisible on the street.

Nobody wants to practice English. They all say better for me to keep practicing Spanish. *sigh* You’re missing your chance, guyz.

It takes a very chill kind of person to just go and travel and feel at home anywhere. I am not such a person. I like things to make sense, I like things to be familiar, I like to be able to communicate with ease. I don’t like to feel small and afraid and lost and dependent and stuck in my own mind.

Yet I travel, I study, I work. Because I want to learn. I want to grow. And I refuse to grow stagnant.

And as I learn new things, I become comfortable in them, in being with new people, in speaking a different language, in learning about different places. The process of large-scale exploring, even, I’m becoming more familiar with.

And as I lay here in an unfamiliar bed in a bedroom in a place I have never been before. I find I feel safe.

Day 14

I lay in bed for a long time. Not really tired, just not really ready. I’m going to be here for two more days and two more nights. I’m just generally tired. I kind of wish this was a little later after getting back from Quepos. But I suppose I’m traveling, so I should travel as much as possible. Though I dislike being away from G and R. I have only 2 weeks left in Costa Rica, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to return. That makes me sad. :(

Sitting in the living room, I casually survey the foot sizes. My feet are huge…and they look bigger in chuck taylor’s.

I’ve noticed I don’t see a lot of homeless people here. There are setups of places where people have squatted, sort of shantytown-esque, but you don’t see a lot of people just laying around on the side of the road. There’s probably more of that in the big cities like the capitol. I saw one person in Heredia. But maybe people are generally more resourceful, or having a more collectivistic culture, they help each other out more.

It’s interesting how you can see a culture’s beauty standards reflected in manakins.

Driving here in Costa Rica, you have to be quick, aggressive, and resourceful. The roads are insane. Lines are suggestions more than anything else.

Andamos en muchos buses. Practice for San Francisco.

Just passed a house with toy dinosaurs hanging all over the bars of their patio, like hanging on by themselves. It was cute. :)

There are lots of schools in Cartago.

In Costa Rica, cemeteries are very white, with tombs of white tile and flowers.

Going to Costa Rica the first time, I never would have thought I’d find family, and that 2 years later, I’d be back for another month, with intentions of coming back again and again. This time around, I can say I really do like Costa Rica.

A, T (her roommate), and I went to the lookout in Orosi this afternoon. It was really pretty.

There are yellow lines on the side of the road that mark bus stops. It makes so much sense now…

I met for the second time A’s sister and husband, and we talked for a long time. They’re language professors and are absolutely hilarious.

A’s mom is from an indigenous ancestry. A cares a lot about what happened to the indigenous peoples at the hands of Spain, and she wants to help pull their cultures and languages to the forefront of the social and lingual consciousness of Costa Rica.

Tortuguero

I sat silent and introspective on one side of the motorized boat taking us down the river. Below us, the dirty water sloshed dark and brownish, and above us, rain fell from the purple clouds, which occasionally burst to life with lightening, followed by the throaty growl of thunder. Other boats traversed the river that night, but not nearly as many as during the daytime.

It didn’t even feel like we were on earth anymore.

“It’s like a Ghibli movie,” one of my classmates remarked quietly from the other side of the boat, gazing out the transparent plastic covering keeping us dry.

I smiled. Yes, it was exactly like a Ghibli movie, that sense of fantasy and wonder, of gorgeous landscapes and storylines that leave much for the viewer to discern. This landscape spoke strongly of something, but all I knew was that it spoke. I couldn’t understand what it said.

Before long, we dismounted on a grassy spit of land near the beach, where the green sea turtles would be coming up to lay their eggs. Hopefully we would see one. We waited near an abandoned airstrip—a wide expanse of cement extending into the humid darkness, under the surreal expanse of luminescent thunderheads.

At the near end of the airstrip a small, silent building kept us from the rain. A skeleton of cement, without doors or windows. There was a stone bench or two, large rectangular extensions of the wall.

We waited a long time for the scout to spot one. During that period, we saw a large, colorful frog, some huge locust sort of thing, and an unfortunate opossum, who found itself surrounded by another group of tourists (while I stewed in indignation on the other side of the building.)

The guide talked quite a bit, and asked us all sorts of questions in a mix of Spanish and English. He posed a scenario to which there were two answers. When it came my turn to speak, I ended up giving the answer no one else had chosen. Unexpectedly, he jumped on it, pressing me to explain myself. In Spanish. Needless to say I choked. I thought I had said something wrong or offensive or horribly ignorant. But no, not really. The answer I provided for the scenario was true for some seasons, and very valid. But perhaps because I had answered differently, he kind of picked on me the rest of the night.

And we all know how I love standing out…

Finally, the scout rematerialized with good news, and we ventured out over the wet grass and onto the sand. We walked down the beach a bit, the dark sand bleached purple and gray by the storm. In the lights flashing in the clouds above, I spotted the green sea turtle retreating back into the ocean—large round shell, heavy flippers moving over the sand, head faced only toward its destination, as if nothing else mattered. The guide thought it must have been a young one, as they are more easily spooked, or they fail to lay their eggs properly.

I stood awestruck as I watched her retreat. I kept reminding myself I really was standing there. In Tortuguero, in Costa Rica in the middle of a thunderstorm, reasonably close to a creature I had never met in real life. I looked out on the sea, turbid ink stretching forebodingly to the horizon. I tried to take it all in.

What it said, what it meant. What I was supposed to do with the sheer overwhelming fascination beating in my chest. I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it.

And even a year and a half later, I still can’t.

Milk Tea

milkteaI had ridden the bus from Monte de la Cruz back to San Rafael perhaps once or twice in my life, and I was still feeling nervous as I arrived back at my host family’s house. The rest of the evening stretched before me, of sitting and socializing as best as I could with my unconfident, apologetic Spanish before I settled down to work on my mountain of daily homework. Being an introvert using broken Spanish in an unfamiliar environment, I wondered where my limit was with this routine.

“Do you want coffee or tea?” Rosi asked as I sat down at the glass dining room table and my host mom continued through the white-curtained doorway to the kitchen.

“Tea’s fine,” I responded, glancing at the clock. “Thank you.”

“With or without milk?”

“With milk.”

Rosi and I would sit at the table enjoying afternoon coffee or tea quite later than normal for many Costa Ricans, since I came back from classes around 6pm. Usually, she would do most of the talking in our conversations, and I would nod and do my best to comprehend and answer questions. I usually understood most of what she said. The structure of our conversations suited me well back then, in that it wasn’t demanding or too terribly stressful, and I learned quite a bit about faith, family, and life in general.

And Rosi, a petite woman with short, curly black hair and an eager smile, has had some amazing experiences. In a constant battle with herniated discs in her back, she has faced death twice, but pulled through. She and Gilberth, her husband, believe God provides and that each day, healthy or otherwise, is a gift. And while I agree with them, I know I don’t understand it anywhere near as well as they do.

Rosi and Gilberth do their best to remember to speak clearly and enunciate when they talk to me, but sometimes Rosi especially gets excited and goes off a little too quickly for me to follow. I’m getting better at it, though.

Many afternoons, I would have té con leche with Rosi and Gilberth, and it was the best tea I had ever had. Up until that point I had experimented with adding milk to tea, but it had never been as perfect as the tea Rosi makes.

God willing, this summer I will be able to go back to Costa Rica and spend time with my host family, to have tea and share more stories and make more memories, now that my Spanish has improved and they’re extended family, not friendly strangers.

 

 

The Seoul subway system is glorious. With a good map, a naïve traveler like myself can easily traverse around the staggering size of South Korea’s capitol. On my juniors abroad trip this last May, we learned to navigate said system, and we had ample free time to explore and have adventures, some of which took us to Kyobo Bookstore, the Eat Your Kimchi Studio, and Namdaemun Market.

One of the many things I love about Asia is that milk tea is super available there, in convenience stores, grocery stores, coffee shops, and even in the subway. On one occasion, a few friends and I were on our way back through the latter, and we found a small bubble tea shop. (Bubble tea is milk tea with tapioca pearls or the like in it).

Spur of the moment, we entered, because I’m obsessed with milk tea, and why not? We had time. And they had taro bubble tea, which I couldn’t pass up.

I tried to use as little English as I could with the cashier. In South Korea, some of the people we encountered at the register were eager to talk with us and ask where we were from. Others would get this nervous look in their eyes, as if silently willing me not to start spouting a significant amount of English. I understand the latter feeling all too well, and I tried to have mercy on them. I only wish I spoke more Korean.

We stayed in the bubble tea shop until we had just about finished our tea, because even though the space was tiny, it was also bright and friendly, and there were a few tables, despite the scarcity of elbow-room. Part of me wanted to leave because we were so close to the cash register, but I found ways to keep my awkwardness at bay—mostly by watching my friends talk to the women working the counter.

We didn’t stay there significantly long, but I still clearly picture that teashop between two subway lines under Seoul. When I have similar drinks here in the United States, I still think of the that place, of trying to take up as little space as I could because 5’5 ½” is still kind of tall for a person in Korea. I think of the new friends I made and everything I saw and learned in my short time there.

 

So I have a preoccupation with milk tea. In and of itself, the drink is beautiful, hot or cold. But for me it is also a reminder of my travels, of the relationships and experiences I have found through them, and how they continue to change me. And it serves as a teaser, a deep-seated conviction that many more experiences are yet to come.

While my studies are keeping me more-or-less tethered to one region for the next eight months, I keep Tutti Frutti tea from Costa Rica, black tea, and sugar in my cupboard, and milk in the fridge.

For now, I’ll work and study and dream, and when the time comes, I’ll break out my passport again.

Lights

After a full day of two three-hour classes, I just wanted to go home to my host family. Being around the other students where I was studying abroad in Costa Rica made me melancholy. They were all so outgoing and confident, with a easygoing thirst for adventure that made my stressed-out, culture-shocked self retreat far into the shadows. Don’t get me wrong, they were a great group of people, but even as nice as they were to me, I was endlessly intimidated, and plagued by a foreboding sense that I couldn’t fit in with them.

It was also Friday. The weekend was calling my name, and I was cold and tired and ready to descend the hill to San Rafael where I could unwind. But on Fridays, we had another assignment. We had to stay later, watch a movie, and talk about it. It would be close to 8:30pm when I finally stepped up to my host family’s gate and called my shy, diffident, “¡Hola!”

Trying to ignore the fact that I really didn’t want to be there, I seated myself in a cushioned couch with one of my classmates, whom I had connected with most on this study abroad experience. After watching the movie, the students talked through a bit of commentary. I didn’t express myself wonderfully in Spanish–probably used the wrong word and sounded odd. And then we braved the dark windy night on Monte de la Cruz for the twenty seconds it took to pile into the university van that would take us each back to our home-stays.

The first part of the descent into San Rafael was hemmed in by tall trees, but about halfway down, they opened up, and I suddenly found myself looking at a sight that filled me with joy like a jolt of electricity. I saw the Valle Central spread out, a huge depression in the earth bordered by mountainous hills pulling up the other side. A dense network of countless lights unfolded, as far as I could see before trees blocked my view again. San José, San Rafael, Heredia…and many more cities and communities I hadn’t yet heard the names of, were illuminated, decorated with lights from closely packed houses, buildings, and streets.

City lights.

I was rushed back to my childhood, staring out the window of my parents’ car as we drove home in the dark. I would stare off into the distance at the speckled glow of the faraway urban landscape, and it always filled me with wonder. Even while I vehemently considered myself a country person, I had an acutely fond fascination for city lights.

I didn’t know how overwhelming they could be until that night. No one else in the car seemed as filled with the sense of ecstasy that beat within me. I didn’t know what to do with this inspiration, this joy. Civilization. Life. Activity. Light superimposed upon the dark in an eternity of patterns and variations. I tried to express my rapture in Spanish, but I failed. I would have failed in English too.

The second time I encountered this sight in Costa Rica, I tried to take a picture of it, but my phone couldn’t handle it. Fortunately, I found one on google, but it’s from a different angle, and it still doesn’t quite capture everything.

Like a starry landscape, something so powerful in person is very difficult to express with a mere photograph.

My Introduction to World Travel

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.