Category: Costa Rica (page 1 of 7)

Su Casa

Author: Sarah Rosa Germann

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Your house. A phrase spoken by Ivannia and Carlos, the couple who lives in this house with their teenage son Alejandro, multiple times over my first couple days here to signify that this is my house as well as theirs.

I arrived at this house in Costa Rica at approximately 11pm, after having woken up around 3:50am for my flight out of Cincinnati. Understandably, upon arrival I was a little concerned. On top of my not knowing Spanish in order to communicate with the people in this country, the house also seemed a little strange to me. There are three sections of the house. One triples as a garage with plants, and a sitting area with a roof. It seems like the main room, but some of this area does not have a roof and one wall is halfway open to the air, with bars instead of a solid wall. This is like an outside room, which feels more inside than most yards.

On either side of this big area there are indoor rooms. The interior sections are not completely closed off from each other, there are full glass doors which usually stay open, and from my bed room I can easily hear kids playing on the street, cats on the roof, and even the wind as if I were outside. So, the indoors feel more outdoors than I am used to.

I was timid on the first night, but as soon as the second or third night here I had come to a deeper appreciation of the house. There are imperfections such as varying types flooring in the outside room, a cracked tile here and there, missing paint at the bottom of some walls. But I  soon grew to like these aspects of our home, too. And as I got to know my host family better I learned that they built this house, with the help of extended family, themselves. Roofs and all! How impressive is that?

I would not do an explanation of this house justice if I did not talk about the people in it. Not only do I spend time with the three other people who live here, but every day at least 3 and up to 10 other family members and friends come through our house to eat, and talk, and laugh with us. On the first day I must have met at least 12 sisters, nephews, cousins, friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends. This was intimidating because I could not fully understand what was being said, and everyone knew that I hardly spoke any Spanish. But I could understand what was being said a little bit by what was going on. Because the sound of a family together in one language sounds much like family and friends together in other languages, with a difference only in the accents of the voices. Everyone here has included me and treated me as one of them, working to overcome the language barrier, which becomes less of a barrier every day.

Me gusta aqui, es muy bonito.

Author: Sarah Rosa Germann

Location: Santa, Rosa, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

“I like it here, it is very beautiful.”

I have been in Costa Rica for a week now. During the first few days, people would ask me how I was feeling about being here. With my limited Spanish vocabulary, this was the simple phrase I could use to express what I think about what I have seen of the country. As I walk to class at Casa Adobe, I enjoy the beautiful weather which I do not usually have this time of year, with a warmth of 72 degrees. I like the sun, the wind, the plants, and the sky. In many ways it is different here than it is back in Valpo, and I feel very lucky to be studying abroad here. In the yard outside of my open-doored classroom, there is a garden, a swing set, picnic tables, a hammock, dogs, cats, children playing, and even a cow. How lucky am I? I should be blown away by my good fortune at being able to go to school in such a place. But, honestly, I am not.

The streets and sidewalk are uneven, there are powerlines, paint on picnic tables and the walls of houses is peeling, and alleyways are crocked and, at times, grey. Santa Rosa is not a perfect paradise; it is a place. And just like every other place in the world, it is filled with both beautiful and less-glamorous aspects. I could choose to look at only the glamorous aspects and say that this is a paradise, and Valpo could never compare. But I won’t.

Asserting that I like it here, and that it is beautiful is a natural and appropriate response from a student who is studying abroad. But, in the contrasting beauty and imperfections of this place I realize it is alike in many ways to every other place on earth. I am not going to be duped into belittling other places in comparison. There is beauty to be found everywhere. I can visualize Valparaiso University right now, with its similar colored brick buildings, zig-zagged sidewalks, covered in thick layers of snow. There isn’t a cow in the front yard of the classroom. But, it is saturated in beauty just like every other place in the world. And I am lucky to call Valparaiso one of my homes.

But, what about Costa Rica made it obvious to me that I am fortunate, surrounded by beauty no matter where I am? I could be filled with gratitude for the place I am in, always. Perhaps the answer lies in my expectations for something different. Aware that I am in a new country, I have focused on my surrounding, intent on learning what it is like here. And in doing so I found things that were good, and things that were imperfect. In my anticipation, Costa Rica has simultaneously mystified and under-whelmed my heart and mind. I am left with a desire to travel to more places on this earth, so that I may again observe the beauty and imperfection which underlies everywhere.

A Catholic Encounter: Learning from Other Traditions

Author: Katherine Germann

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Religion is a part of Costa Rican culture. Although there are many Costa Rican people who are not very religious, many people are religious. I found that most people that I have interacted with in Costa Rica identify as Catholic or Evangelical Christian. The Catholic tradition in Costa Rica is prevalent and rich, which is not surprising because that is the official religion of the country. My host parents are also Catholic. Thus I had the opportunity to see much more of the Catholic tradition (particularly as it is in Costa Rica) than I have ever seen before. As an evangelical Christian, I brought in some of my own ideas about prayer and worship, and some of what I found in the new tradition challenged my own ideas. However, I tried to keep an open mind and understand this unfamiliar side of Christianity. In doing so, I found that, through its unique traditions, Catholic worship has a lot to offer one’s spiritual life. With the following examples, I hope to show how much I could learn from Catholicism and illustrate the importance of encountering religious traditions other than your own.

This is a traditional Catholic image of the Virgin Mary taken at the basilica.

One part of the Catholic tradition in Costa Rica are the Rezo de Niño ceremonies (prayers to the Christ Child). In Catholic homes, the nativity scenes are left out until this ceremony has passed. The host invites friends and family to attend the Rezo de Niño, and an appointed person leads the congregation in a ceremony of prayer and music. This consists of the whole Rosary and Christmas songs, usually lasting about an hour. Afterwards, the host serves food (always including lots of rice) and sometimes there is music and dancing. Through these Rezo de Niños I saw that religious customs are important not only for individuals’ spiritual lives, but they bring families and friends together in a very real way. I observed that the Catholic tradition is much more relaxed and accepting in Costa Rica than I had imagined. There were varying degrees and styles of engagement from the participants: some were very concentrated while others simply waited or watched. It was not a problem to arrive late, and one ceremony even doubled as a birthday party. I felt that the most important part of the experience were the relationships. The traditions within the catholic faith opened up opportunities to celebrate community.

Another part of the Catholic tradition, which at first made me uncomfortable, were the prayers to Mary. As an evangelical Christian, I am only accustomed to prayers that are directly to God, not to any of the Saints. I was afraid to pray to Mary because I did not want to commit the sin of idolatry, and I was not sure if praying to any being other than God would be right.  However, I opened up a conversation with a religious woman about praying to Mary at one of the Rezos that I attended. I learned several things that have increased my respect for Mary and for the catholic custom of praying to Mary. First, she made it clear that Catholics do not worship Mary with the same kind of praise that is reserved for God. Rather, they love and adore her. I was made to see that prayer can mean different things for different people. It can be worship or it can simply be a form of love. Second, the Catholic woman said that they honor Mary with a reverence that comes from her being chosen by God, and because she is the Mother of God (the Christ child). The woman believed that Mary was human, but she is set apart from other humans by God, and through this she deserves our reverence. She gently challenged the lack of attention to Mary and to the Saints within the evangelical tradition. This helped me see my own tradition from a new perspective, and increased my respect for the Catholic attention to the Saints.

Another custom that I had to consider was the effectiveness of the repetition of the Rosary. In my tradition, I usually do not repeat and recite standard prayers. Rather, I think of prayer as an open and genuine communication with God. However, this form of prayer showed an aspect of meditation, which I came to respect more than before. I understand that meditating on the same phrase, over and over, can help train and center one’s attitude and build patience. Catholics show discipline in repeating the Rosary. With this being said, I was still conflicted about the effectiveness of the repeated prayers. Within the Rosary, people beg Mary to bring God’s blessing to them over 50 times. I wondered: If Mary can actually hear and respond to our requests, why bother asking her for the same thing over and over? Wouldn’t this show lack of faith in her response, or at least be annoying to her? I asked one older woman my question, and she gave me a new perspective on the prayer. She said that the phrase is repeated over and over not just to communicate with Mary, but the phrases themselves are a gift to her. The prolonged attention and the prayer itself is an offering to the woman that they honor so much. These experiences allowed me to see prayer from a new perspective, and I realized that my idea and use of prayer is not the only way that prayer can be used as a spiritual discipline.

One part of my experience of the Catholic tradition relates more specifically to my traveling opportunities. This was our class trip to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles. The basilica is beautiful, and it is built on the spot where the Virgin appeared in person, according to tradition. Underneath the basilica is a place where people leave offerings for the Virgin. There is also a spring where blessed water is said to come out, and there were several people collecting the water into bottles. I was impressed by this display of faith and discipline by the worshipers. However, the most impressive display of discipline were the people who walked on their knees to the high altar. Some people started at the entrance to the long Basilica, others started even farther away. Their knees must have been killing them. Some people, such as my host dad, even walk from far-away cities to make their pilgrimage to the Basilica. (My host dad walked over 50 miles for his pilgrimage.) These are impressive displays of faith and love for the Virgin and God. Although my personal faith experiences do not require grand offerings, do not promote the use of symbols and relics, and do not require pilgrimages to specific Holy Sites, I learned to really appreciate and respect these new types of worship through my travel experience.

This is a photo of me with my classmates (Hannah, Kyra, and Gabby) in front of La Basilica de Los Angeles.

If I hadn’t traveled, I would not have been pushed to experience so much of the Catholic tradition. I also experienced different forms and customs within a church closer to my own tradition by attending the church Oasis de Benedicción. I got to see perspectives from other religions, as well, through conversations with other international students at the University of Costa Rica. Traveling helped me step out of a context that was familiar to me and see spirituality and worship through a different lens. I learned to widen my own perspective on prayer, on Saints, and on religious ceremonies. This helped me gain greater appreciation for different traditions and customs. People can learn so much through travel if only they can be attentive and open to what they encounter abroad.

A Country (Or Even A Neighborhood) Doesn’t Fit Under An Umbrella

Author: Katherine German

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Have you ever approached a new situation with assumptions? How about assumptions that you didn’t even know you had? When I went to Costa Rica, I knew that it would be best to go with no expectations, completely open-minded to what I would find. That was my intention. So when I got to Costa Rica, I was astonished when my unrecognized expectations and assumptions were broken. I was ready to learn about Costa Rican culture, but I assumed that all Costa Ricans would display the same “typical” behaviors and customs, and I had some assumptions about what those customs might include. The main thing that I learned through my actual experience is that there are no “typical” Costa Rican families, nor is there a “typical” Costa Rican. Yes, there are shared behavioral patterns, phrases, and common foods on the menu. But you simply cannot fit an entire country, or even an entire neighborhood, under a single umbrella idea of “typical behavior”. Think about it: when it rains, only one person fits under a single umbrella. Try to fit even two people and both will get wet.

One of my assumptions going into Costa Rica was that every family would have a long, slow meal together every night. This is because I had heard that Latin American cultures tend to emphasize relationships, have a slower concept of time, and use meal time as a major social event. So I was incredibly surprised, and a little disappointed, when I learned that my host family doesn’t really eat dinner together every night. They all have different evening schedules: with my host mom working in the evening, my host dad running with his team, and my host sister coming home from work at various times. It just wasn’t very practical for my family to have a fixed meal time.

As I talked to other girls in my cohort, I realized that all had different situations regarding meal time, although every family was larger than mine and ate more-or-less together at least some of the time. I also began comparing how we did coffee time, homework time (for families with kids), morning routine, et cetera. I began to piece together something that I should have already known. All families in Costa Rica have their own styles and customs – their own way of living together– just like different families in the United States do things differently, as well.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as regional culture. In fact, there are many aspects of life that Costa Rican’s share. For example, the emphasis on relationships and the “slower” movement of time is a real thing. My family displayed these values of Costa Rica, just in different ways than I originally expected. When I came home from class or internship, if my host mom or dad was in the kitchen, they would always ask how my day was. We would spend some time just talking to each other. We would often have long conversations, about anything, whenever we were home together, or even just sit together at the kitchen counter. My host sister, Kathy, sat with me for nearly 3 hours one day, just talking about music and playing the guitar. Building relationships and spending time together without having an agenda is a beautiful aspect of Costa Rican culture that my host family displayed in their own way.

On a lighter note, Gallo Pinto is a typical Costa Rican food. Some may call it the typical Costa Rican food. It is a preparation of rice and beans with a particular flavor and it appears on almost every restaurant’s menu. If you order a “typical Costa Rican breakfast,” you will surely get Gallo Pinto. Almost every Tico (Costa Rican) will claim that they love Gallo Pinto. With this being said, there are different ways to prepare and eat this typical dish. One can make it with black beans or red beans, providing different flavors. It can be served with eggs, alone, or with meat. It can also be eaten at any time of day. Although many people eat Gallo Pinto at breakfast, my host family almost never did. On the occasion that we did have Gallo Pinto, it was often for lunch on a weekend. Although the love for Gallo Pinto is almost universal in Costa Rica, there are no rules about how to prepare and eat it. In other words, although Gallo Pinto is a common Costa Rican food, there is no “typical” Costa Rican diet.

One more thing that is common to Costa Rica is the phrase “Pura Vida,” which means “pure life.” It can be used as a greeting, when someone is excited, or within a normal conversation. I found that everyone in Costa Rica embraced the idea of “Pura Vida.” However, the phrase had slightly different meanings for everyone, and everyone used it with their own style. There are some aspects of culture that are common to a country, but the whole country can’t fit under a single umbrella. Everyone displays the values and culture of the region in their own way. There is no such thing as a “typical” Tican (Costa Rican).

All four spring 2018 students with their host families and Heidi. All people reflected the culture of Costa Rica. However, there was quite a lot of diversity in how each family lived, worked, and interacted with each other. 

Finding Peace in the Memories

Author: Hannah Purkey

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

       Ten days ago, I did the thing I was dreading all semester. I sat on a plane and said “see you later” to my new home. Costa Rica had become a place I felt comfortable, a place where I could be my pure self, Costa Rica became home. So where do I go now? As I come back to the hussle and bussle of life in the United States, I am not the same. Sure, study abroad did not completely change my world, but it sure shook it. But it taught me more about life and myself than I ever thought was possible. I won’t lie, I am happy to be back around my friends and family. But a large piece of my heart will always be in that country. I find myself trying to focus on life now, but what do I do with the overwhelming knowledge and memories I formed in Costa Rica? And how do I answer the most difficult question, “How was Costa Rica?” When I have these thoughts, I have to remind myself to slow down, find peace within myself, and find joy in the memories. It is impossible to accurately describe what my study abroad experience was like. Words do not do it justice, but I have been able to find some peace with my explanations through photos.

So I would like to share some of my favorite photos from my semester in Costa Rica. I truly believe a picture is worth a thousand words.

I fell in love with my host sisters. Their smiles made my day, everyday.

The Spring 2018 semester group: Katherine, Kyra, Gabbi, and I.

What is important to ticos? Fútbol! (Soccer) Especially when you get to watch it with the family.

Some things get done differently, including fishing (they use string instead of rods)

Not to mention the nature itself can take your breathe away.

We got to do projects in the community!

Bond with locals!

There is incredible art that portrays the real situations of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans.

We took Spanish classes with incredible people from all over the world!

We all learned so much from the classes we took!

The animal life was incredible to see!

There was incredibly deep conversations in the coolest of places!

We were blessed to see so many incredible places!

When I think that life is rough, I must remember that the sun will rise again the next day.

There are no words to describe the intense, amazing feelings I have for the country. I can only hope to take what I have learned and bring it into my life going forward. Pure Vida!

Open Houses, Open Hearts

Author: Katherine Germann

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Your first impression when you walk through the barrio (neighborhood) of Santa Rosa might be that people don’t like talking to their neighbors: they prefer to stay shut in their houses and close themselves off to the world outside. This is because almost every house on the street displays bars in the front. The first impression may strike visitors as hostile, but I soon realized that my host family’s house is actually quite open to the outside air. I can feel wind coming in through the garden and the garage when I am sitting in the kitchen, because the house is not fully closed to the outside. Furthermore, the door leading into the living room is never locked. The front gate on the house, then, functions like the front door of a typical house in the States, which is naturally locked most of the time so that people can feel secure inside.

This is a photo of the front of my house. Most houses on the street have bars on the front and a gate.

Just like the houses is Santa Rosa are open to the outside air, the neighbors are open to unexpected conversation. My host mom sells merchandise, such as perfumes and cosmetic goods, to people in our neighborhood. Her job takes her everywhere in Santa Rosa, as she visits clients at their houses to sell. By accompanying her on several trips around the neighborhood, I have been able to see the way that our neighbors tend to interact. I think that the openness that I have observed in this community is beautiful.

The kitchen

Another photo of the kitchen









When we arrive at a client’s house, they sometimes invite us inside, and we can chat for a fair amount of time. My host mom and the client catch up on things that are happening in their lives, taking their time to talk and listen to each other. This aspect of my host mom’s job takes time. But despite the fact that she has about 100 clients to visit each week, she is never rushed. This affirms something that Heidi, our director, told me about Costa Rican culture. The emphasis of daily life is not to get tasks completed, but to have relationships with people. Two specific instances of relationship building really stand out to me.

The first was when I was visiting clients with my host mom, one of the women who invited us inside and invited us to sit down. We stayed there for about 20 minutes, or maybe a little more. The conversation went pretty deep into the women’s lives. They shared personal experiences, encouraged each other, and laughed together. This woman is my mother’s friend, so perhaps the occurrence was not too abnormal. However, I am still impressed that they took time for each other right on the spot. They did not have to schedule a time in advance to talk to each other. Both were open to stop what they were doing and build the relationship.

This is a picture looking down the street from in front of my house.

Other neighbors were open to long conversation with me, as well. Another time there were three gentlemen. I was pleasantly surprised by their openness toward me and their genuine desire to get to know where I am from and to teach me a little bit about Costa Rica. I commented on how colorful Costa Rican currency is, beginning a conversation about the artistic colones. The bills have historical people on them as well as animal and plant species that are important to Costa Rica. The gentleman went inside to get a wide variety of bills to show me. He taught me what he knew about the historical people and the species of plants and animals. In this way, I learned a lot about Costa Rican history and biodiversity.

Colones: Costa Rican Currency

Finally, he showed me a 5 colones bill (which are no longer used in Costa Rica). The bill displays a copy of a mural, and he explained the mural to me and the history behind it. Finally, he gave me a 5 colones bill as a gift! This amount of kindness took me by surprised and made me feel welcome in this community. In short, I have been extremely pleased by the openness of the people that I have met in Santa Rosa and the willingness to share in each other’s lives.

5 colones billete

I am finding that the culture in Santa Rosa is also open to spontaneous interruptions in everyday life. Or, perhaps more accurately, taking time to talk to other people in the neighborhood is just a part of everyday life. People will stop what they are doing to engage in relationships and conversation. Sometimes as we are walking through the neighborhood, my host mom stops at someone’s house just to say hello and chat for a bit. The first time that she did this, I asked her if it was rude to just stop by someone else’s house in the middle of the evening. They could be in the middle of doing something, I thought, maybe they have other things to do. In my past experiences, I usually don’t go to someone else’s house without planning to do so ahead of time. She assured me that it isn’t rude at all. She walks up to the front of the house and calls “Upe,” which is a greeting commonly used in Costa Rica to call on someone at their house. If the neighbor is home, they usually invite us inside and we talk for a while. The same process goes the other way around – sometimes neighbors call on my host family and we invite them inside. It is also very common to simply stop and talk to people that we meet in the street. In general, I think that the people of Santa Rosa are beautifully open to share their lives with their neighbors and to build community. I love the experiences that I have had in this way.

Your Everyday Granada (From My Perspective)

Author: Gabi Neuman

Location: Granada, Spain

I’ve talked about the adventures I’ve had in Granada, Italy, and Morocco, but not much about what happens during the everyday life of Granada.  A little bit about the city and people of Granada and my daily life experiences, some good, some bad, and others just simple observations or as we say here in Granada, “no da igual”:

  • People are always shopping (don’t ask me where their seemingly constant flow of money comes from)
  • The majority of stores and restaurants close around 1:30pm and reopen around 4:30pm every day for siesta time
  • I’ve eaten more bread, oranges/nectarines, soups of all kinds, and drank more hot chocolate in the past month than I have in my entire life
  • Tapas are also a very regular activity to go out with friends and get after dinner.  If you don’t know what tapas are, they are essentially an appetizer that you get for free when you purchase a drink whether the drink has alcohol in it or not.
  • The architecture in Granada is very heavily influenced by the Arabic culture when they were inhabiting Granada before the Christians conquered the city.  Hence, the Alhambra exists, which if I’m not mistaken is an Arabic palace.  There are also many side streets where you can see the remains of the Arabic influence.
  • Siesta is now a daily activity for me
  • I also have more free time than I ever have in my life and don’t really know what to do with myself (plus no class on Fridays–I’m definitely not complaining about this one)
  • Wake up late, stay up late.  Pretty sure that’s the motto here in Granada
  • Everyone smokes, and when I say everyone I mean everyone (down to the 14 year olds)
  • You concentrate your brains out to understand what a professor or someone else is saying to you in Spanish and still don’t catch it all so you have to ask for them to slow down or repeat it and feel like a dummy
  • In this same manner, it’s a mini achievement when someone in a store speaks Spanish to you and then continues to speak Spanish to you even though you know you’ve totally botched what you were trying to say
  • When I first arrived, many of the locals were telling me how small Granada is and I didn’t believe them because for me it seemed huge.  However, after a month and walking around the city quite a bit, I have to say that they’re right.  There are two main roads to orient yourself by (Calle Recogidas and Camino de Ronda) and if you know where those roads are you’re all set.
  • Granada is a seriously gorgeous city.  If you look up to the east (I think) you have a clear view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you can look out to the country side, there’s beautiful plazas everywhere, a river that goes through the city which makes for a nice walking area, and so many other places to adventure to.

Although I’ve observed and experienced quite a bit in my short time I’ve been here whether good, bad, or just simply an observation, there is so much I still don’t know about Granada, the people, the language, and Spain in general, but I guess that’s why I’m here so that I can learn all I can about this awesome place.

​Forming a Far… Far… Far Away Family

Author: Hannah Purkey

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica 

One of the best things about studying abroad is getting to interact with different cultures. I can’t think of a better way to do that than living with a host family. The thought of living with a host family can be overwhelming. You may not speak their language well, the food could be very different, and the cultural norms may be different than the United States. All of the above are true for me. Spanish is not my first language, the food is different than the food in the US, and I do not understand parts of their culture. Because of this, I had many questions about living with a host family. After living with my host family for four weeks, I can definitely say this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The following are important things I have learned from living with my familia tica (Spanish for host family).

All of the families, that students are currently living with in Costa Rica, have hosted students before. Because of this, my host family generally knows what I need help with, what is different for me, and what my academics are like. This has made the process of adjusting to a new family easier for me. Even if a student is a family’s first student–that is awesome too! It is important to know that all host families are evaluated and screened. Before any student lives with a host family, the staff of the study site (for Costa Rica the staff are Heidi and Alfonso) will interview the family and look at their home. They make sure the family is capable of housing a student. More than that, all of the host families here love hosting students! They love building new cross-cultural relationships.

I was very nervous about my family placement, but I ended up loving my family. My family and I both like music, Disney movies, are involved in the Christian church, and like to spend time simply hanging out. No matter what family a student is placed in, they will find common interests. This is a great way to start making connections.

My host sisters (Chiara and Maria Celeste) and I playing together!

As a United Statesian, I grew up believing in the power of my own independence.   This idea of independence was one of the first differences I noticed between the culture of the US and the culture of Costa Rica. People from Costa Rica (known here as ticos) function as a collective culture. Their families and friends are one of the most important things in their life. If someone in their family needs help, they will do everything to help them. I experienced this first hand. Last week, I was pretty sick. I couldn’t go to class and spent a lot of the day in the bathroom. My host mom (Maria) checked on me frequently, and she advocated for me when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to the doctor. She constantly worried about my wellbeing. This kind of love in seen through out familial life in Costa Rica.

Spending quality time with our host moms!

This idea of family accompaniment is a new concept for me. Yes, families in the United States are close, but it is different here. Family is the central part of Costa Rican life. I am not just a student living with a family. My host family has completely brought me into their family. Everyday when I come home from school I get greeted with many hugs, giggles, and smiles. My mom always says (in Spanish), “It’s so good to have my daughter back home.” It has been a true blessing to be a part of a my Costa Rican family. I can’t wait to spend more time with them!

Kyra and I eating fruit and ice cream with our host siblings


Pro Tip While Travelling: Find Familiarity

Author: Zoe Henkes

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

When you’re traveling abroad, you may instantly feel overwhelmed by the many changes and new experiences.  Things may even seem a little out of control at times.  The daily routine that you’re so used to may not even exist anymore.  

One thing that I would suggest when studying abroad is, even when everything around you seems so foreign and out-of-the-ordinary, is to try to have some sort of familiarity.  Whether that includes pictures of your family or friends, or your colored pencils because you like to draw, that familiarity will help a lot when everything else seems so different.


For me, that familiarity is regular exercise through running.  Even if I weren’t studying abroad, exercise is a good way to release endorphins and lower my stress levels.  But this is especially relevant now.  Ironically, I have not run one step since coming to Costa Rica.  The neighborhood is pretty safe to run in, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t feel right.  

At first this was fine because I was constantly tired and didn’t even have time for exercise because classes went form 8 am until 5:30 pm.  However, after those classes ended in October, this lack of exercise actually caused me a lot of discomfort.  There was a voice in my head that told me I should be getting exercise, but I still felt too tired or scared to run outside.  Eventually, there was a time when I got a pretty bad case of the flu, and I spent three days inside, not seeing the sun once.  This was a real wake up call for me, as I realized how sedentary I had really ben this entire trip.  Even though I am in a totally different country, exercise isn’t something I should have to forfeit (This goes for any sort of hobby or interest—if it’s something that you enjoy, please don’t give up on it just because you are studying abroad.).

So maybe running isn’t really your thing.   No worries, there’s Zumba!  I was honestly a little nervous the first time I went Zumba here.  I had done Zumba a couple times in the US, but since Zumba originated in Latin America, I felt very out of place.  However, it was honestly so much fun!  No one judged me for my poor dance moves.  In fact, I’m sure the instructor (who is crazy good) saw me struggling, but he made an effort to encourage and even compliment me on the things that I could do.  

Next, if neither running nor Zumba are up your alley, there are these public exercise machines in the parks of most neighborhoods.  To give you a better idea of how they work, none of them are motorized, they instead focus on lifting one’s own body weight.  Other machines use resistance or work the cardiovascular system.  When I first saw these, I actually laughed a little bit, thinking to myself do people actually use these silly machines out in the open?  The answer is yes!  Even though it’s not what we are used to, they are free to use and will give you a basic workout.  

If none of this appeals to you, there is a gym that you can get a membership in.  I considered this, but it did seem a little expensive for my taste.  But hey, if that’s something that is important to your everyday schedule, don’t shy away from that!

Overall, what I am trying to say is that even if you are spending a semester abroad, which is supposed to be filled with all new experiences and adventures, if something is important to you or your mental sanity, don’t give that up.  In the long run (no pun intended), when everything else is so different from the norm, that one familiar thing could help tremendously.  


Healthcare in Costa Rica

Author: Zoe Henkes

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

As a pre-med student, I feel sort of obligated to write about health and the healthcare system here in Costa Rica.  After all, one of the main reasons I chose to study abroad here was to learn about Costa Rican healthcare through the INTL 335 course, “Sociology and Ethics of Health and Health Care in Costa Rica” taught at Casa Adobe by Heidi with the opportunity of an internship in a healthcare setting.

To start, I feel like some people might assume that Costa Rica has a lower standard of health than the United States, maybe due to its location as a Central American nation and stereotypes based on its neighbors like Nicaragua.  While Costa Rica is comparatively “poorer” than the United States in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), it actually boasts similar or even better health statistics.  Furthermore, Costa Ricans pride themselves on their good hygiene.  Especially because it can get so hot here, they like to be very clean, bathing once a day at the least!

Next, the Costa Rican healthcare system itself consists of a social security system called the Caja Costariccense de Seguro Social (Caja or CCSS for short).  The three principles of this program are equity, solidarity, and universality.  Workers and employers pay a fixed percentage of their incomes into this system, in return for standardized healthcare services.  Because nearly everyone is required to pay into the system, nearly everyone receives the healthcare services provided by the Caja.  Two of the main complaints with the system include long wait times to be seen by a doctor and not being able to choose which doctor to see (it is generally whichever doctor is on staff at the time).  Nevertheless, there are private practices in which patients can be seen quickly and see their own doctors in return for paying extra.

Additionally, there is a greater focus on preventative health here.  Inadvertently, the long lines at the Caja for medical attention serve as an incentive to keep people healthy.  In a sense, if they stay healthy, they won’t have to come see the doctor as much!  There is also a public health officer at each local clinic, called an EBAIS, that go around to each house in the neighborhood to do preliminary checkups, provide care to children and women in their child-bearing years, and take data on or educate the public about current diseases spreading around.  Furthermore, an EBAIS occasionally organizes public rallies or other educational events to promote healthful habits in the community.  I was lucky enough to participate in a health parade organized by a local EBAIS, where volunteers, school children, and healthcare professionals marched to raise awareness about healthy lifestyles.  At the end of the parade, there were various tents with informational brochures about child development, healthy relationships, dental hygiene, you name it!  There was also an instructor leading Zumba, which is a fun way for community members to get involved in regular exercise programs.

Finally, if you do get sick while studying abroad, don’t freak out!  At least here in Costa Rica, you will be cared for in good hands.  While in Nicaragua, I got a bad upper respiratory infection.  When we returned to Costa Rica, I was reluctant to see a doctor because I was stubborn and a little nervous.  The cough persisted, so I finally went in.  Heidi took me to the private doctor that she usually brings students to if they get sick.  The appointment itself was 25,000 colones, which amounts to about $45.  The doctor was extremely respectful and knowledgeable, and even spoke English, which I didn’t expect.  Furthermore, doctors in Costa Rica get lots of pharmaceutical samples, so if they have what you need, they’ll give them to you without an extra fee, which was great!  Additionally, if your condition doesn’t get better, you can go in again free of charge, which is a way to encourage patients to be attentive to their own health and not wait until conditions get worse and worse.

Overall, the Costa Rican healthcare system surprised me in its level of care and expertise.  The quality of care given throughout the country is very high, and the fact that care is almost “universal” is something to aspire to.  While there are obvious downfalls with the system, the overall idea that healthcare is a human right is something that is very important to me.  As a future practitioner, I’d like to integrate these principles of preventative health in my own practice and promote more widespread and equalized care for my future patients.

In all, I think that my experiences here in Costa Rica have opened my eyes to other models of healthcare that I didn’t know could function so well.  Likewise, they have helped me develop a more extensive understanding of what really goes into providing quality healthcare and how I can implement these practices in my own career.



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