What good fortune I have in that I was offered the chance to serve as a group leader for a study-abroad program through my school, SDSU, to Costa Rica. It was definitely a step outside my normal comfort zone, but I’m so glad I was given this chance and didn’t hesitate to take it. That’s not to say I didn’t have nerves or anxiety about — I most certainly did, but I did embrace it. Not without losing a lot of sleep and worrying about all the “what ifs.” In many ways, I was a nervous wreck before going, but it turned out to be such a wonderful experience.
Since 1998, my main job at San Diego State was to promote “transformational” student services to our students; one of those high on the list being study abroad. Now, when I was in college back in the 1970s, study abroad was unheard for a student like me. I was a first-generation college student, and my father, the only working parent I had, died at the end of my first semester while I was at the local community college. So our family was far from flush with money. In fact, if it weren’t for the $125 a month in Social Security survivor benefits that I gave to my mom in order to live at home, I would have had to drop out of college. I always worked while in college as well. Back then, study abroad was something only very elite students did, and I was about as far from elite as they came. Marketing study abroad to our students over the last 20 years filled me with regret that I hadn’t had that kind of experience. Well, I guess better late than never. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity.
The husband was allowed to accompany me as a travel companion but, of course, we had to pay for his airfare and extra expenses to do so, but I had a hotel room taken care of so it was a no-brainer. Plus he has much better Spanish-speaking skills than I do, so he came in very handy. My primary role was to be available to our students 24/7, but luckily I had a wonderful group of students who were rather low maintenance. The husband did have to spend a few hours most days on his own while I did excursions with our students, but he was allowed to accompany us on a few, and he enjoyed that.
Overall, Costa Rica is a very progressive country with an advanced healthcare system (every single citizen is covered), and an extremely high emphasis on higher education. It’s probably the most progressive of all Latin American nations. They haven’t had an army since 1948, so they spend their money on citizens, rather than military. Since our students were from our College of Health and Human Services at SDSU, they were all health-related majors, so we all learned a lot about Costa Rican healthcare. We spent a day at a medical university, a psychiatric hospital, a shelter for persons with HIV, and a senior center. We also had the opportunity to spend the day in a “barrio bajo,” or slum, where Nicaraguan immigrants live. I think that was the most eye-opening event for our students, and for me.
San Jose is the capital and largest city in Costa Rica. That was our base for the study abroad program. San Jose is a big, dirty city, no doubt, and driving through some of the sketchier neighborhoods after being picked up at the airport, we wondered what we were getting into. It turned out our hotel, the Apartotel Tairona, was in a solidly middle class section of the city, and a 5-minute walk to the CRLA, where we met with our students daily. I enjoyed commuting by walking 5 minutes per day. Interesting thing about San Jose: street names and numbers are rarely used. Landmarks are the key to finding your location. The official designation of our hotel was: “Barrio Dent, San Pedro Montes de Oca, de Taco Bell 75 metros oeste.” It doesn’t list our street or the number, but we were 75 meters west of Taco Bell! During a downtown tour, our guide pointed out the large postal office building, and said that because of the Costa Rican emphasis on landmarks, a good percentage of residents wouldn’t get their mail. She noted that it might say “10 meters from the white fence,” but then the fence had been painted, and the postman would be totally confused and lose the mail. So San Jose residents opted for PO boxes.
In spite of being a big dirty city, there are quite a few gems to be found. The National Theatre was gorgeous, and the National Museum was very interesting and lovely. There were a lot of whimsical and heartfelt statues throughout the city, especially honoring workers and those who were catalysts to developing the country. A few “heads of state” but not as many as you’d see in other parts of the world. The focus seemed to be on those workers who paved the way and came to make the nation what it was. I liked that. A focus on the common human beings who worked to make it what it is.
Married to a foodie who cooks and travels to experience the native cuisine, I am open to experiencing the native food wherever we go. I can say that the fresh fruit was amazing. I ate the freshest and sweetest pineapple, papaya and mango every morning. We sampled an excellent juice of an indigenous fruit that only seems to be in Costa Rica: the cas. It was slightly tart, but I like that, so I really enjoyed the juice. The main staple of Costa Rica is a rice and beans mix called Gallo Pinto. Now I love rice and beans. Being from San Diego, our cuisine is a SoCal Mexican style. I could live on Mexican rice and beans all day. But the Costa Rican version was without the flavor and spice I’m used to. So it was alright. But I grew tired of it quickly. And fried plantains. Not so much. They are ok, at best, but nothing worth writing home about. They used a lot of cream cheese in dishes too. Which I have nothing against, but just didn’t see the reason for it.
The thing about Costa Rica is that the food options are very cosmopolitan, meaning you can find any type of food you want quickly. We ate Italian our first night; then some good Japanese sushi another night. We ate at TGIFridays one night. There is an abundance of American fast-food joints everywhere (at the medical university, our guide said obesity has become a growing concern because of all the fast-food restaurants).
The Nature Sites:
Doka Coffee Plantation and La Paz Waterfall Gardens
We had one free day, where the husband I explored a coffee plantation and then headed up to the mountains to see the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. That was a great day.
I’m a tea drinker, but I enjoyed learning about the coffee of Costa Rica, considered one of the best in the world.
We enjoyed the bus group tour with so many world travelers. There were a couple of British couples (the husband made friends with one older couple in particular, of which that husband had a very similar sense of humor). Several French, German and others, and a couple of Americans too. I love this the most about traveling: connecting with others from different parts of the world. It’s a cliche but true: you find you have way more in common with many different people.
La Paz was well worth the trip. A mountain rain forest jungle and seeing so many creatures (in captivity) and the waterfalls. The bus stopped at a strawberry farm about 3/4 of the way up there where we bought our stylish ponchos for the rain forest.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park was a group excursion with all the students, and on our last day, Friday, January 12. Definitely the highlight. We had a guide, Saul, who was more than helpful in identifying various creatures on the jungle hike toward the beach.
If nothing else, someone going to Costa Rica should definitely go here. A nice jungle hike, a great beach, much wildlife, including monkeys trying to steal your food, and wild raccoons who are bold as can be. Sloths, green frogs, red land crabs, deer, and much more.
Manuel Antonio National Park: I highly recommend this for any visitor to Costa Rica.
After our adventure, we went to the most amazing restaurant that I would also recommend to anyone visiting Costa Rica: El Avión. Just a few miles outside Manuel Antonio. The food was great, but the sunset views were more than amazing. Interesting story about this restaurant: a plane serves as the foundation, but not just any plane. It was from the Iran/Contra hullabaloo.
Many people might only be interested in tourist activities and not care about educational activities while exploring a new nation, but I relished it. I truly did, and it made me feel more alive than ever. The things I learned, and the places I’d go!
We met at the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF) to learn about the La Carpio community of Nicaraguan immigrants who live in this neighborhood. We were warned that we’d see poverty like we’ve never seen before. Driving by certain impovershed neighborhoods of Tijuana (our neighbor directly south of San Diego), I have seen that kind of poverty, but only from “drive by” sightings. Never up close and intimate. The thing that struck me: the sense of community that was strong and present. Our students interacted with young children at the school, then later, abuelas (grandmothers) who put on a theater performance that explored abuse and exploitation that they had experienced. Ironically, a few of our students said of their “mamacitas” (their houseparents) telling them “don’t go down there. They are murderers and rapists.” I heard that refrain before from ignorant people talking about immigrants. It goes to show that fear and ignorance are rampant for those who view immigrants as “the other.” Again, the thing that hit me here: community. They were all so bonded and created a place for many generations.
A mental hospital. Why did I feel at home there? We were told not to take photos, so I didn’t, but felt a deep connection with our guide/nurse, William Chinchilla. Many years of experiencing Fairview, where my developmentally disabled brother had lived for a few years, I’ve seen much worse. Our students were rather impressed about the institution and their level of care. I love the humanitarian approach they had. I loved Nurse William. He was awesome. Here is our student Austin, outside the front of the building.
Alejandro was a great moderator. This is a shelter for HIV+ patients. We had one student in particular who was not comfortable but my hope is that he he learned something new and grew out of his discomfort. The shelter provides a great support system and individual approach to men, women and transgender persons.
Hogar Carlos Maria Ullloa Senior Center
The morning of Thursday, January 11, we visited a local senior center originally started through the Catholic church. Costa Rica is a Catholic country, but it is not rigid. After touring the facilities, our students interacted in many meaningful and fun ways with the residents. They played ball, and various games, but took the time to sit and listen to the seniors. The oldest was a woman of 105. It was a great experience to see.
We had a cooking class of some traditional Costa Rican food. The students learned to make some sweet empañadas, made with smashed plantains, sugar, cream cheese, and more.