Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Category: Costa Rica (page 1 of 9)

Que Dios Te Acompañe

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location:  San José and Heredia Provinces, Costa Rica

When I filled out my host family profile form for my study abroad application, it asked about religion. I remember writing that I would love to be with a family with whom I could attend church, but that it wasn’t the most important factor for me. I was lucky enough to be placed with a family that is a great fit for me in pretty much every aspect. I love spending time with my little siblings, enjoy the boisterousness of a house of 6, talk about everything from politics to future goals with my tico parents after my hermanitos are asleep, and we’ve been to church together plenty times.

Around 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic, 14% Evangelical, and a mere 0.7% Protestant. As a Christian who has floated between mainline Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian) my whole life, I approach religious services here with open-mindedness and curiosity, as I’m learning not just about new denominations, but about how those churches manifest in Costa Rican culture.

Catholic Sunday Service at Santa Rosa de Lima Iglesia Católica

My first full day in Costa Rica, I went to Sunday morning church with my host family. I had been warned by many that nothing in Costa Rica starts on time, so I was surprised when we walked up to the church at 10am and the service began right on the hour. (Church services, along with train departures and doctor’s appointments, turned out to be the few exceptions to the “tico time” rule.) I’d never actually been to a Catholic mass before, and there wasn’t a service folder that told me what to do, so I followed along as well as I could. I enjoyed the guitar-accompanied music, the breeze carrying through the wide-open church doors, and the relaxed atmosphere. It was nice to spend time with my new family and get an introduction to their religious life.

Across the street from the brightly colored Santa Rosa de Lima church.

Evangelical Service at Proyecto Abraham

My second week here, on my way to Longo Mai with my cohort and some Casa Adobe people, we went to a Sunday morning service at an evangelical church. Between the heavy focus on end-of-days theology and the auditorium-like setting, it wasn’t my style, and frankly, I didn’t feel super comfortable during the service. But outside of their services, Proyecto Abraham has a lot of community outreach projects that sounded interesting, and I’m still grateful for the chance to learn more about the diversity of churches and worship styles of Costa Rica.

Didn’t get a picture at Proyecto Abraham, but this is the main basilica in Santo Domingo. Due to Spanish colonial influence on urban planning, nearly every city in Costa Rica, including all the ones I’ve visited, has a basilica in the center, right across the street from the city park.

Noche de Música at Longo Mai

During our trip to Longo Mai, we held a music night with several community members, most of whom are immigrants from El Salvador. We sang songs from the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan Peasant Masses, which were written in the 60s and 70s after the Second Vatican Council allowed the customization of mass for different languages and cultures. The masses were immediately banned by oppressive governments, because they spoke of a liberating theology with God on the side of the poor.

I played a ukulele someone brought along, a Longo Mai resident played all the guitar parts from memory, others joined in on violin and percussion, and we all sang our hearts out. I asked Doña Edit what the songs meant to her, and she said she was so grateful to be able to sing them freely and openly, because she could “desaugándome” (let it all out): joy, sadness, gratitude, and everything in between. It was so beautiful to be able to experience a small part of what these protest hymns mean to so many Central Americans.

We held the noche de música at Edit’s house. This is the Catholic church in Longo Mai. The mural features Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated by the government for his activism in 1980. The flag is half a Costa Rica and half an El Salvador flag.

Rezo del Niño

I have attended two small prayer services called Rezos del Niño with my host family. In the Epiphany season (between Christmas and Lent), Costa Ricans celebrate by gathering on a weekend evening in a friend or neighbor’s home. After attending or hosting a rezo, each family finally takes down their large nativity scenes, which are usually adorned with Christmas lights. At the service, there’s usually a rezador, or professional singer, and the host leads the prayers. Everyone prays the rosary together, reflecting on the mysteries of Jesus’ birth and childhood and singing Christmas carols in between each decade (set of prayers). Afterward, everyone shares food and conversation.

I really enjoyed both rezos — while I’m not Catholic, I appreciated the repetitive, meditative nature of the rosary (as well as the chifrijo and tacos we enjoyed afterward!). After the first rezo, I successfully held a conversation with a brand-new acquaintance, which was a first for me in Spanish. (Looking back a month later, I have conversations with strangers all the time. Day-by-day progress is slow, but I’ve improved a lot). The second rezo was last weekend at our neighbor’s house. Due to maintenance and construction, our whole neighborhood didn’t have water for about 24 hours that weekend, and there was something extra meaningful about praying “Lord, have mercy” when we were all praying for our water to come back. It was lovely to experience a uniquely Costa Rican way of celebrating Jesus’ birth and bridging the time between Christmas and Lent.

My tico siblings, mom, and I on the same day we went to the second rezo del niño. (Theme of this blog — I don’t tend to take very many pictures at religious services!)

Devotions at Casa Adobe

Every Sunday, Casa Adobe hosts afternoon devotions. When I don’t have too much homework, I attend and always enjoy it. Fabio leads the music on his guitar, and Heidi accompanies on violin. We sing a few songs, pray for each other, and discuss a Bible passage together. I’m still working on getting to the level of Spanish where I’m able to contribute to a high-level theological discussion, but for now, I like listening! Everyone is invited to Sunday dinner afterward, which is always lovely. Since my two classmates/cohort members live at Casa Adobe, I like getting the chance to spend time there outside the class and to continue to get to know the community.

Casa Adobe on an unusually cloudy day.

Friday Night Mass at San Pablo Apóstol

A few weeks ago, my family went to mass on Friday night instead of Sunday morning. It was in a neighboring town at a larger church. One difference I noticed from the smaller Santa Rosa de Lima church was that they had “Sunday school,” or whatever you call Sunday school on Friday nights — the kids all went to a different room for most of the service, playing games and learning the Bible story of the night. In the main service, there was a small contemporary band that alternated with a few recorded tracks. There were also liturgical dancers during the praise songs, who looked so joyful the whole time. The service was a bit long, but I really liked it; thanks to Candlelight at Valpo, I’ll always be partial to evening services.

A (blurry, unfortunately) picture of the church in San Pablo, all lit up for the evening mass.

Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia for Santa Faustina

Yesterday, my tico parents took us to a church in Coronado for a special service that they were helping to run. All over Costa Rica, from households to postcards to key fobs, you find the same image of Jesus, who has rays of red and blue light coming from his hand, with the caption “Jesús, en Ti confío” (Jesus, I trust in You). This image was inspired by St. Faustina’s vision, which she had many years ago on February 22. We celebrated by talking about her life and work, and praying a modified rosary called the “Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia” (Crown of Divine Mercy). It was a really interesting and unique service, and it was lovely seeing my host parents in their element, leading the Coronilla and talking passionately about St. Faustina’s life and purpose.

The altar, featuring images of St. Faustina, Pope John Paul II (who canonized her), and the famous painting.

My tico dad speaking to the congregation about St. Faustina’s life.

Whenever I say goodbye to my host mom in the morning, she always says “Que Dios te acompañe” (May God be with you) as I leave for class. From hearing this common phrase, to praying together as a family whenever we drive somewhere, to getting the opportunity to attend such a wide variety of services, I’m grateful for the way I’ve been able to experience Christianity embedded in daily life here in Costa Rica.

Finding God in a beautiful forest and in my beautiful family.

Getting Around

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José and Heredia, Costa Rica

Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’m starting to get used to the varied methods of public and private transportation. My Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) started this week, and while Heidi oriented me to the university, she must have told me at least four ways to get to class in the morning, and four more to get home in the afternoon. I realized a few days ago that I had used six methods of transportation in one day: I walked, biked, took a train, took a bus, took an Uber, and took a taxi. So here’s what each of those are like for me in my everyday life.

Walk

My favorite method of transportation, though by far the slowest, is walking. This would be unthinkable to my last-semester self. I biked everywhere on Valpo’s campus — with my back-to-back classes and packed schedule, it was necessary. If I couldn’t bike due to snowy weather or a flat tire, I would lament how long it took to walk everywhere, and would be just a few minutes late to everything.

But here, walking is fun again. Between neighborhood dogs and darting through traffic, it might be the added thrill — pedestrians don’t have the right of way or very many crosswalks, so crossing the road is all about timing. The sunny weather and better views certainly help, as does the fact that here, absolutely no one will care if I’m a few minutes late. My daily walk has been to Casa Adobe, where the Valpo study center is located, about 20 minutes from my house. There are a few different routes between my house and Casa Adobe. I prefer the one that I can’t take if it’s starting to get dark outside. Here, people say streets are dangerous at night if they’re sola — if there aren’t any houses around, so you might end up walking alone. But the sola route has fewer cars to dodge, and it takes me on a road bordered by trees through a local park, so it’s particularly pleasant early in the morning.

The sola route on a sunny morning.

Bike

Last week, in anticipation of having to catch the 6:45 train for classes at the UCR, I borrowed a bike from Casa Adobe. Despite my bike being my lifeline back at Valpo, it’s more difficult here. With more hills, lots of traffic, and worse sidewalks, biking can be a bit dangerous, especially when I’m coming home during rush hour. With the added steps of retrieving my bike from the garage at home and stashing it at Casa Adobe, biking and walking from my house to the train station end up taking about the same amount of time. Maybe as I get more confident in this new environment, something will change, but I haven’t gotten the hang of biking here yet.

My bike, waiting in the garage for the next time I decide to try it.

Train

The train is definitely the most reliable source of transportation I have access to. It always follows the same schedule, arriving just a few minutes before 6:46 am every weekday. But it’s a far cry from the South Shore Line. Going from the suburbs into the city on a weekday morning means it’s rush hour — every car is packed full of people. I’m not very assertive in a crowd, so I usually end up having to ride a few stops in the precarious closed-in space between train cars, with the floor and walls moving and no handles in sight. It’s a relief once we get closer to the city, people start getting off, and I can make a dash for the stability of the train car, grabbing on to an overhead handle.

The train also gets me to school really early. The train arrives at 7:15, so I have a full 45 minutes to wander around campus, grab coffee, or do some last-minute homework before class begins. I can’t complain, because the it’s the fastest way to get anywhere. The timeworn car may rock back and forth on the tracks as we move, more boatlike than trainlike, but that’s part of the adventure, right? The views out the window, the price, and the time are unbeatable. I love the train.

Santa Rosa’s train tracks. I wish I had a picture from the train, but it’s usually far too crowded to get my phone out.

Uber/Taxi

I’ve taken fewer Ubers and taxis than anything else to get around. They’re more expensive, take more steps to catch one, and require conversation. My first weekend here, I took an Uber to and from the mall to buy pants (my biggest study abroad advice — check your suitcase to make sure you actually grabbed all the clothes you planned on taking out of your closet!!). The first driver I had said only a few words, but my driver home was very chatty. While I was worried at first I would make a fool of myself, after he realized I was from the US, we talked and joked about cultural and language differences, and it was a lot of fun. It was definitely a good step toward becoming more confident in my Spanish and acclimating to the culture. Speaking of culture — in Costa Rica, when you take a taxi, you sit in the backseat, but when you take an Uber, you sit in the front. Not totally sure why, but the more you know!

A pic from Longo Mai, because it’s weird to take pictures in Ubers.

Bus

The bus is my ticket home, in more ways than one. The train only runs at rush hour, so when I get out of Spanish class at 1 pm, I take a bus or two instead. Also, as proof that I won’t overstay my travel visa, I bought a bus ticket to a neighboring country before going through immigration. Buses are everywhere — while I’ve heard nothing about a formal timetable, I’ve never had to wait longer than a few minutes for a bus. And I’ve taken them everywhere — to get home from class, to get around my neighborhood, city, or province, and to travel to, from, and within San José.

There are (at least) two ways to get home by bus after class. If it’s close to an hour, I take the direct bus from the UCR to Santo Domingo. This one requires paying a lot of attention — since it’s heading all the way to the city of Heredia, the bus doesn’t like to stop unless it has to, so when I’m approaching my neighborhood, I pull this little cord next to my seat and hope the bus driver will let me off. It’s a comfortable bus though, less crowded than the train, and having a direct route from school to (near) home is a blessing.

The other way to get home is less certain, and I’m not too confident in it yet. I can go to the bus stop, take literally any bus into downtown San José, walk around the corner, and take any bus whose sign in the window lists “SANTO DOMINGO” as a stop. I’m still weirded out by the concept of not worrying what specific bus or route to take, but it does give me freedom and flexibility, since I can take it at any time, and if I want, take a detour into downtown San José to hang out in the city after class.

This isn’t the bus I take, but there are so many buses on UCR’s campus. Here’s one of them!

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled recently:

  1. micah 6:8 espanol: The Casa Adobe community holds devotions every Sunday evening. I finally made it to one this past Sunday, and didn’t bring a Bible, so I looked up the verse for discussion in both Spanish and English to have them side by side.
  2. what is vitamaiz: I went with my host family this weekend to visit our grandmother’s house. On Saturday, I saw her stir something flour-like into a pot of hot water on the stove, and a few minutes later she handed me a mug full of a warm, light-colored drink. I wasn’t really sure what it was but drank it anyway – not my favorite, but it was pretty sweet. I saw her pull out the box later, and later googled the name of the product, but I still don’t really know what it is – some kind of corn drink, probably? Some cultural mysteries can’t be solved even by Google!
  3. how to get US shows in costa rica: I’m an avid fan of The Good Place, so I was very sad when I tried to log into my Hulu account here and it blocked me because I’m not in the United States. Ever since, I’ve been searching for a way to watch the last several episodes and the series finale, but no luck so far! If you have any idea how to do it, please let me know 🙂
  4. wonder park movie summary: One of my host family’s favorite activities is to watch movies together, usually in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I can follow along pretty well, but sometimes my limited vocabulary will cause me to miss the point of an important scene. I’ve taken to googling the plot summaries of movies so I can read along and keep track of what’s happening.
  5. C2 grammar spanish: I’m taking two Spanish classes this month – grammar and conversation. There are six levels from A1 to C2, and I placed into B2 for conversation, but there aren’t enough students to offer B2 grammar this month. I had the choice of an easier or harder Spanish class, and after trying both and some frantic googling to make sure I wouldn’t be in too over my head, I chose the harder class. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’m up for it!

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I really have a handle on getting around Costa Rica. I told a classmate how to take the bus from UCR to Santo Domingo today, and I can only hope that when I ask him tomorrow, the directions made sense! But I’m grateful for the number of different ways I can get from here to there. It’s exciting having the freedom and ability to go pretty much anywhere, with just a little forethought, a few solid Spanish phrases, and some change in my pocket.

Taking in all the sun I can.

Mucho más allá

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Costa Rica

I arrived here in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica a week and a half ago. From classes starting, to life with a new family, to weekend adventures and a trip to Longo Mai, it’s been a whirlwind. While I was definitely nervous for the semester, there was one thing that helped as I prepared to leave. Hannah, a Valpo alum and friend who stayed with the same family, connected me with our tica mom* on WhatsApp, and she sent me a delightful voice message in which my new siblings – two younger girls and a toddler boy – introduced themselves. Whenever I felt stressed or nervous about leaving, I would replay it and smile as “hola Yena, cómo estás, te amo” filled my ears.**

My tica sisters made me welcome cards that they gave me when I arrived, complete with glitter.

Posing with my tica sisters and cousin, with plenty of Valpo gear to go around!

When people ask me about my first impression of the country, I talk about its natural beauty. It’s an easy thing for me to talk about in Spanish, but it’s also my natural first reaction. I chuckle to myself every time my tica mom asks if I need to grab a jacket whenever the temperature dips below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I take advantage of every opportunity to study, have class, or walk around outside. And I will never get tired of the mountains. We’re located in the Central Valley, which means the mountains surround us. To locals, they’re unremarkable, background, but I will never get tired of gazing at them on my walk to class, at sundown, or while driving around the city.

Beautiful cloudy mountain views on our drive to Longo Mai.

While I’m very grateful for how lovely my time here has been so far, it hasn’t been without its mishaps. One morning was particularly trying – first, I couldn’t leave my house because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the front door and no one was awake. Upon leaving my house, the neighborhood dogs jumped on me and chased me down the street. After shooing them off and arriving at Casa Adobe, the front door, which I don’t have a key to, was locked! But for every unfortunate occurrence, there have been many more joys, from swimming in the river and singing old songs with locals at Longo Mai, to playing and laughing with my tico siblings, to trying and loving new foods. I’ve learned so much in class already, and arguably even more in my everyday life.

We went for a swim in a beautiful river while at Longo Mai.

A quick explanation of what my study abroad program looks like, since it’s pretty unusual: while I’m a part of a Valpo study center program, I’m the only student from Valpo in Costa Rica this semester. Thankfully, the Valpo study center is based out of a house called Casa Adobe, the hub for several volunteer and educational programs, and the residence for families, volunteers, and employees from around the world. Like previous semesters, I’m taking an introductory history course with the program coordinator, Heidi, but we are joined by two Casa Adobe volunteers who arrived here around the same time I did – Juliana from Bolivia and Andrea from El Salvador. I was very nervous about studying abroad alone, but now I feel lucky that I get to do my first class, a few trips, and orientation activities with a unique international cohort.

From left to right, my cohort – Andrea, me, and Juliana – at El Museo de Arte Costarricense.

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled so far:

  1. san jose airport map: Preparing myself so I wouldn’t get lost immediately after arriving!
  2. how to ask for check costa rica: I went to lunch alone in a restaurant for the first time. Unlike in US restaurants, the waiter doesn’t rush to give you the check right after you eat, but I wasn’t sure how long I had to wait. After waiting and watching, I realized that I was supposed to go up to the counter to pay. Good thing there were other people in the restaurant, or I may have waited forever!
  3. incofer train schedule: Figuring out how early to wake up in order to catch the train to go to San José with my cohort on Saturday (turns out – very early). It’s the same train that I’ll take to my Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica in February.
  4. how to add minutes kolbi: Here, instead of phone company contracts, you prepay for phone “minutes” on your Costa Rican SIM card. I knew that most stores were able to help you add more minutes, but I wasn’t sure quite how to ask.
  5. pupusa recipe with squash: While in Longo Mai, Doña Edit taught us how to make pupusas, a delicious Salvadoran corn flatbread stuffed with cheese, squash, and beans. I knew immediately that I would want to make them again.
  6. costa rica earthquake: There were two earthquakes while we were in Longo Mai! As I’m from the Midwest, I’d never experienced an earthquake before. Both of them were of moderate intensity, causing little to no damage, but they occurred in the middle of the night, and I slept right through them!

A phrase has been knocking around in my head ever since I heard it last week. My tica family and I went to see Frozen 2 in theatres. In Spanish, instead of singing “Into the Unknown”, Elsa sings “Mucho Más Allá”, a phrase that colloquially means “far beyond.” If each word is literally translated, it sounds like “a lot more over there”, which made me laugh. But the chorus of the song has been stuck in my head ever since, which makes sense, as I am “mucho más allá” from my home, my family and friends, and everything that’s familiar. Still, I’m grateful to be here, and can’t wait to see what more adventures this semester holds.  

The view in our backyard from the garage stairs at sunset. San José is just below the mountains in the center left.

*The word for Costa Rican is tico, and for brevity’s sake, I will use tico/a to refer to the members of my host family.

** The “J” sound is different in Spanish than in English, so my name sometimes ends up with a Y instead of a J in spoken and written Spanish.

Coming Home: A Study Abroad Reflection

Author: Mia Casas

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

It has been officially over one month since I have returned home from my Study Abroad Program in Costa Rica. Unlike some of my peers, I was super excited to finally come home. Others had mixed emotions. On the other side of the spectrum, one of my friends was really upset and sad about the idea of returning to the States. This perfectly exemplifies how each person experiences circumstances differently, and processes their emotions differently.

Although I loved Costa Rica, I was ready to be home. I was anticipating reverse culture shock with excitement, oddly enough. Heidi advised us that we would come back to our country and culture with new, fresh eyes. She recommended that we keep a journal to note our observations about the world we live in. Our new vision would fade fast as we became accustomed to US living again.

It’s true that most Americans are known for their hustle and bustle in daily life, and this is even more accentuated during the holidays. The Christmas season, though, is my favorite time of the year and I was eager to come home to spend time with my family and friends, and catch up on all the holiday festivities. Undoubtedly, my relatives looked forward to my return, but the overwhelming feeling of sadness hit me unexpectedly when I realized I didn’t have the same support system as I did in Costa Rica. I knew that a period of grief would hit me eventually, but I never expected it to happen when it did. It happened one weekday when I felt like I didn’t have the support system I needed. I had realized how busy and run down my family was with work, practices, appointments, etcetera, leaving me feeling neglected, in a sense, as if they didn’t have time to spend with me. Meanwhile, I was so enthused to be home and wanted to engage more frequently than what my friends and family could offer me.

I hit a low that night, but realized it was just a part of the cultural adjustment process, same as in Costa Rica. In due time, I found clearings in my friends’ and family members’ schedules to catch up and enjoy their company, and eased my way back into my routine here at home. There are still times I wish I could take a break from all of it to embrace the Pura Vida spirit. Yet, I still count my blessings for all the things I missed while I was away. And I count my blessings for all the wonderful memories made in Costa Rica.

Los Chorros Waterfalls: For our last cohort trip, we traveled near Grecia to see this magnificent waterfall, in addition to hiking some life threatening trails, (the usual in Costa Rica). This sight was magical, as we were able to swim under the waterfall, and bathe in the river without being disturbed by tourists.

International friends: We said goodbye to our friends from Norway and the Netherlands. I am thankful for having the opportunity to have met them.

The US Presence in Panama

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Panama City, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

When we first drove into Panama City I was impressed by the skyscrapers that line the horizon. As we got closer, I loved seeing the modern landscapes and urban setting. I thought to myself, “This could be the place for me.” It had a seemingly perfect combo of Latin American culture, but also a Western influence. From the infrastructure to the recognizable restaurant chains, it was very obvious how much the city mirrored an American metropolitan city.

I was initially impressed by these features that so closely resemble my home. I enjoyed the feeling of being in a Western atmosphere because it represented something familiar to me, but I soon realized how this reality represents an unpleasant history between Panama and the US. At first sight, it demonstrates how the US has been a major influencer in the history and culture of the country. However, once you study the country’s history closer, you learn that Panama’s culture was essentially stripped away and dominated by US politics.

The wealth that is evident in Panama’s infrastructure is a direct consequence of the construction of the Panama Canal. With the profits of the Canal, Panama has established itself as the richest country in Central America. However, not all of its history is glamorous. Since its conception, the Canal was never a project Panamanians and the Panamanian government consented to begin. Yet, the United States overstepped the government to execute the plan for a canal and, in doing so, exploited the country’s lands and people to create a profitable trade route.

Moreover, the domestic and foreign workers were initially excluded from the profits of the Canal. Often times they were cheated out of better wages on the basis of being “unskilled” workers. Additionally, they were prohibited from entering an area known as the Canal Zone, as the name implies, the area immediately around the canal. This section of land was dominated by white “gringos,” who imposed their cultural norms of segregation in the country.

However, the relationship between Panama and the United States is glorified because of the Carter-Trijos treaties, in which the USA ceded control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. This portion of history is etched in people’s memories in Panama. Both US President Jimmy Carter and Panama President Omar Torrijo are remembered as good men that sought to advance the conditions of Panamanians. In one interview, an individual shared how he remembered that these great diplomats had interest in progressing remote areas of the country, like in indigenous communities.

Thus, to my astonishment, I never encountered anyone in Panama that expressed animosity against the USA, despite their authoritarian presence in the past. Perhaps this is because the US invaded Panama in 1989 to remove the dictator Manuel Noriega. Some believe that Panamanians could have done this independently, but presumably, not as swiftly without the support of the US. I was disappointed that I did not know about these circumstances prior to visiting Panama, especially because it relates to my own history. One thing I have taken away from this trip is to study some of the significant events that have shaped the country’s cultures and current conditions before visiting. It does not need to be extensive, but enough to understand and relate with its citizens.

While in Panama, the cohort did an excursion to the Miraflores Locks to witness cargo ships passing through the Canal.

Ocean View of Panama

Panama Skyline

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

#ProhibidoOlvidar A Mural Remembering the 1989 Invasion of the US

Time-Lapse of Ship Passing Through

Cohort Photo at the Panama Canal

I Spy: Costa Rican Edition

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Cahuita, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

One of the top attractions of Costa Rica is the wildlife. Many visitors look forward to seeing all the tropical species that are home to the country. The most recognizable include sloths, monkeys, iguanas, toucans, and more. You won’t find these animals easily in San José, but will definitely have the opportunity to see these creatures in their natural habitat during excursions. The best areas, in fact, are the national parks, which offer shelter for the animals to roam freely.

National parks are protected areas that prohibit the destruction of wildlife in all forms. Commonly, you will see signs that warn against feeding or touching wild animals and littering in nature. These precautions protect the natural environment and ecosystem. In Costa Rica, the regulations of national parks can be even more stringent. For example, Cahuita National Park, along the Caribbean coast, closes daily at 4pm, a relatively early hour. This allows the animals to have a break from human interaction, and still enjoy the daylight hours. For Manuel Antonio National Park, this same standard applies, and the park goes even farther to be closed all-day on Mondays.

While visiting these parks, there will be some animals that you can spot easily. However, most hide clandestinely in the vegetation of their habitat. With this in mind, it is worth considering hiring a guide to help you in your scavenger hunt for all the wild animals. Many animals hide in plain sight, and you need a trained eye to be able to spot them. Otherwise, you may end up looking at the same animal over and over again (like the white-faced monkey).

Additionally, some areas offer day tours, as well as night tours. During the night tours you may spot insects, spiders, frogs, and bats. In Cahuita, Heidi solicited the help of her friend Fernando to give us both a day tour and night tour. An extra benefit of a hired guide is that they have the proper instruments to see the animals, such as telescopes and special lighting during the night. Check out some of the pictures we took, with the help of Fernando.

Iguana at Manuel Antonio National Park

Congo Monkey at Cahuita National Park

Three-Toed Sloth at Cahuita National Park

Two Frogs at Fernando’s Place

White-Faced Monkey Video

Me at Manuel Antonio using a telescope to view the animals in the trees

Everything You Need to Know About The Costa Rica Study Program: Culture and Recreation (Part 2)

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Santo Domingo, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Here is the second piece of everything you need to know about Costa Rica. In this part, I will review some cultural aspects of the Pura Vida country and provide an overview of recreational activities in Costa Rica that are tuanis.

Where am I going exactly? How do I get around?

If you want to scope out in advance what area of Costa Rica you are heading to, the exact location is Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo de Heredia. Santa Rosa is the smaller neighborhood, Santo Domingo is the city, and Heredia is the province (but there is also the city of Heredia). It is a pretty good location because you are about 20 minutes from San Jose, in one direction, and 20 minutes from Heredia, in the other direction. Santa Rosa has a train stop right in the neighborhood, and there are plenty of bus stops nearby, too, that can get you around easily. The routes can be intimidating to navigate at first, but don’t be afraid to learn by trial and error. Worst comes to worst, you can always call an Uber or taxi, (or DiDi! — a new app similar to Uber) to come to your rescue.

What do I do with all my time in Costa Rica?

Aside from classwork and internship, you will have plenty of time to experience the culture of Costa Rica by engaging with your host families, being involved with activities hosted by Casa Adobe, and travelling! I recommend creating a bucket list of all the places you want to see and things you want to do in Costa Rica early on so you can adequately plan for each item. If you start feeling restless, branch out and visit local activities in Santo Domingo’s park, like bailles (P.S. everyone dances in Costa Rica) or conciertos. You can also venture out to San Jose or Heredia. San Jose has a larger nightlife, but the city isn’t really all that pretty, let’s say. Some locals prefer traveling to Heredia, which is more recently developed and has a cleaner look. Keep an eye out for cultural activities going on locally and nationally. The advantage of being so close to San Jose is that you can go to sporting events or concerts for famous Latin American artists (think Marc Anthony)!

During Fall break, my brother visited me and we visited several landmarks in Costa Rica, one of them being the Irazu Volcano, which features a lagoon inside the crater.

Where do you get to visit while you’re in Costa Rica?

There are a ton of websites and blogs online that give recommendations about the top places to visit in Costa Rica. For transportation, this website was very useful for getting around. Truthfully, there’s so much to see but you can really make the most of your time if you plan properly. Here is a comprehensive list of all the places I travelled to for my own leisure:

In San Jose/Heredia Provinces:

1. Barva Volcano

2. Irazu Volcano

3. San Jose Central Market

4. Oxigeno (This is just a mall, but it has a very cool mirador of the Central Valley)

5. Zoológico y Jardín Botánico Nacional Simón Bolívar Park

6. Jade Museum

7. Museums of the Central Bank (Pre-Colombian Gold Museum/The Numismatic Museum/Other Temporary Exhibits)

I found this from the website. “Admission is 2,000 Colones for citizens and residents, and 5,500 Colones for foreigners. Admission is free on Wednesdays. Admission is 2-for-1 on Sundays for citizens and residents with Costa Rican I.D. Admission is free for children under 12, students wearing their uniform or with school I.D. and retired citizens.”

8. Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Cartago

9. National Theater of Costa Rica — Guided Tour and a show (1001 Noches)

10. Estado Nacional // La Sabana Park

Tip: Have the UCR issue you a student ID, and you can get student discounts at certain locations.

In Other Provinces:

1. La Fortuna, Alajuela — Arenal Volcano

2. Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas — Manuel Antonio National Park

3. Jaco, Puntarenas

4. Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

5. Puerto Viejo, Limon

The National Theater is one of the many gems of Costa Rica. In the guided tour you learn that the theater is used for many important, national events, like the President’s inauguration.

It is also ranked as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

As a cohort, the group goes sightseeing. Here are the places we went in Fall 2019 in Costa Rica:

  1. National Museum
      5. Cahuita, Limon       
      2. National Monument (and more)      6. Bri Bri, Limon
      3. Contemporary Art Museum       7. Tortuguero, Limon
      4. Guayabo National Monument        8. Tacares Waterfall

With Heidi, students also visit untraditional tourists locations like indigenous communities and refugee communities. They may not be glamorous areas, but they are very eye-opening and experiences for personal growth. (Bolded items are my favorite locations.)

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

Random pieces of advice for those planning on going abroad?

While I would like to say that everything about studying abroad in Costa Rica was perfect, the reality is that you experience some growing pains while here. The best way to maneuver any uncomfortable situation is to ask for help and open up to someone you trust, whether it be Heidi, a fellow peer, someone in your host family, etc. Some lessons are bigger than others, but here’s some tidbits that may be useful.

Weather

In the Central Valley, it gets chilly at night. If you are traveling to Costa Rica in the fall semester, make sure to bring some sweaters or light jackets. Even during the day, you won’t want to wear summer clothes, like flip flops or shorts because it is not beach weather in San Jose. The fall semester coincides with the rainy season, so ALWAYS have an umbrella with you, that’s the number one rule before leaving your house in the rainy season. You may also want to bring other attire that is water-resistant.

Shoes

You will do a lot of walking throughout the semester, so bring walking shoes that are supportive, and it may be smart to leave behind any shoes you don’t want to get dirty or ruin. The sidewalks and streets are not that great here, so the most important element is functionality. Also, if you wear sandals on a cold, rainy day, you will stick out as a foreigner. Most people wear closed-toed shoes here, which is also good to keep in mind when you go to your internship.

Host Families

One major culture shock may be living with a host family. Not only is it a family that is not your own, the “parenting” of parents in Costa Rica is very different than US parenting. Some people love the experience, whereas others may find it difficult. In some ways, it is like being in highschool again, where you have to be conscious of how frequently you go in and out of the house, what time you come home at night, eating all the food on your plate, etc. The best way to prevent any uncomfortability in a homestay is to, first, be clear in your application what your hobbies are, what kind of food do you like and don’t like, what kind of environment do you prefer, all the details that will help Heidi pair you with the right family. Second, open communication is best, especially with Heidi. She will always help you navigate any situation relating to cultural cues, to arranging a doctors visit, to handling difficult conversations… with anything you need help with.

Costs of Living

In relation to other neighboring Central American countries, Costa Rica is very expensive. I love going to the malls but I never buy anything because everything is overpriced. Be smart and save money where you can. Opt to make lunch at home, don’t buy things in touristy spots where things are overpriced, use the bus versus Uber; this will help you save money to spend on experiences like going out with friends or travelling. Beware that some tourist activities are pricey and foreigners often get upcharged a ton versus residents.

Manuel Antonio is known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.

he National Park is extensive and has many breathtaking views.

Everything You Need to Know About The Costa Rica Study Program: Classes and Internship

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Santo Domingo, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

If you are thinking about studying abroad at Valparaiso’s Study Center in Costa Rica, here’s a detailed guide that outlines everything from class structures, internship options, housing accommodations, and other notes that may help you in your decision to study abroad in Costa Rica. Originally, I wanted to answer these questions all in one document, but I realized there’s just so much that it would be better to split up the topic into two parts — academics and recreation.

What is a study center?

A Valpo study center provides more resources to students during their time abroad. A defining characteristic is a local, on-sight Valpo director who works one-on-one with students to provide classroom instruction, group excursions, local directions, etc. If there is anything else you may need help with, you will always have someone easily accessible to ask. Included with the cost of the study center fee are housing arrangements, whether it be in a homestay or residence hall. For Costa Rica, students do live with a host family, and typically there are other students from Valpo that will form your entire cohort. More information about the different study abroad programs available at Valpo can be found here.

What classes do you take in Costa Rica?

Everyone is automatically enrolled in three classes:

  • Spanish Grammar class
  • Spanish Conversation class
  • Ethnology and History of Costa Rica

Before you enroll for your Spanish classes you will complete a placement exam to determine your level of Spanish. The levels are assessed as A, B, or C; A being the beginner level and C being the most advanced level. From there, each section is split into section 1 and section 2, the latter being the more advanced course. Truthfully, your performance on the placement exam does matter, but the number of students available for each class session plays an important role for the university. I say this because, for our group, we were all placed either in B1 or B2 and no C level classes were offered, initially. This also means that you may be in a course where each students’ Spanish-speaking capabilities vary, but regardless we were all placed in the same class for the sake of class availability. Once you start classes you will realize that the class size is very small, approximately 10 students or less, so it is a good environment to ask a lot of questions.

The structure of the classes is designed to be an intensive course. You will take both Spanish classes at the same time, starting at 8 am and finishing just before 1pm, for four weeks. Between classes you have a 30-minute break. This may not sound too bad, but you may find yourself waking up as early as 5:30 am so you can catch the 6:40 am bus to UCR. But, after just four weeks you will have earned 6 credits of Spanish! Another unique thing is that this Spanish class is exclusive to foreign students, so you have the chance to meet people from different parts of the world and even form friendships.

For the other course, you study with Heidi Michelsen at Casa Adobe, Valparaiso’s Study Center (also known as the Praxis Center). You begin this course as soon as you arrive to Costa Rica, and it lasts for 9 weeks. The first four weeks are intense because you meet almost everyday for almost the whole day. The good thing is that the topics of the course are interesting, Heidi frequently invites guest speakers, and group excursions are built into the curriculum. Then, on the fifth week the cohort does a study tour. This year we went to Panama, in previous years students travelled to Nicaragua, but, since last year, it has been too dangerous to travel there. Heidi intentionally designs the program so that students are exposed to various walks of life — from urban life, to rural life, to indigenous life. So, just as you will do in Costa Rica, you will experience different lifestyles in Panama. Once you return to Santa Rosa, you will start your Spanish classes. At this time, you will meet less frequently for Heidi’s class, typically just once a week. After the first 9 weeks, students typically begin an internship, but there are other options available, as well.

Interested in other miscellaneous class work? Heidi does her best to arrange whatever classes you may need to take abroad, and each member of my cohort has taken various elective courses. Two of my classmates enrolled in a Theology course about ethics at La Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, which is a theology course purely in Spanish. The course lasts 15 weeks, spanning the entire length of our program, and ends in December. They meet for a few hours in the evening only once a week. My other classmate decided to forfeit doing an internship and continue taking classes at UCR. He was initially placed in B1 and has progressed into the C1 course. He is also taking another class with Heidi about the Sociology of Healthcare in the evenings once a week. As for me, after classes at UCR I began a 3-week course on Central American literature with Latin American Studies Program, a study abroad program for various Christian colleges in the US. I am also completing an independent study course on Liberation Theology with Heidi, and an independent study for my International Economics and Cultural Affairs Senior Seminar with my professor at VU. Don’t worry about buying any textbooks for any of these classes. As far as I could tell, all the materials are provided for students.

What are the internships like?

After the first 9 weeks, students typically begin working with an internship of their choice. Most are business related or medical related. I’ve included a link to the list of internships available as of August 2019. If you have a clear idea of where you would like to work, talk to Heidi so she can help you. We always joke around that Heidi has connections everywhere, and it’s true.

Veronica Campell has worked in the neighborhood of La Carpio, a marginalized community of predominantly Nicaraguan refugees and migrants, translating locals’ stories into a book that recounts monumental moments of community members.

In general, I would say your internship is what you make out of it. The work culture is very different here, so it probably won’t match your expectations of a typical internship, based on US standards. For one, ticos (Costa Ricans) have a different concept of an internship than we do, that is to say, they don’t often employ interns. So when you arrive, you will have more personal responsibility and liberty to outline what projects you choose to participate in at your internship. While there, you may also realize that the work environment is more relaxed, and it may feel like you have a lot of down time. Use this time to talk with your peers and/or supervisors and learn more about the company culture and Costa Rican culture, in general.

Veronica works alongside The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, which offers a variety of community enrichment programs.

A lot of this information will be explained by the Study Abroad Office and/or Heidi Michelsen, the Costa Rica program director. However, I hope it helps having the details provided here for you to read thoroughly. I based these questions on some things I had wondered before going to Costa Rica, so hopefully this clears up any doubts! If you ever have a question in the future, I’d be happy to answer any of your questions via email at mia.casas@valpo.edu

The international Spanish students took a field trip with their UCR Spanish professors to breakfast and the Jade Museum.

Veronica and I befriended students from the Netherlands and Norway, and have enjoyed going out for dinner, going to the theater, and getting to know Costa Rica together.

The Bongic Community and Naso People

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

The next destination of our study tour, following our stop in Panama City was an indigenous community near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Although we slept most of the day when we initially arrived, this trip was by far one of my favorite adventures. We arrived at the Bongic indigenous community early in the morning, after an exhausting 12-hour bus ride from Panama City. Even after we arrived at the bus stop in Bocas del Toro, we still had to drive an additional thirty minutes (maybe even more) to this community. I expected to be in a remote location, very far and distinct from the city life.

Students crossed the Teribe River to the Parque Internacional La Amistad.

My expectations were partially true. The Bongic community was once very secluded from the rest of the country. Up until recently, there was no road from Bocas del Toro to the indigenous people. Before the only way to access the community was by boat. Given this limited accessibility, the community is strongly characterized as self-reliant. For food, the community raises its own plants and modest livestock. It is very normal to see roosters and hens roaming throughout their neighborhood. They also constructed their own homes and other living spaces. Although these buildings were by no means luxurious, they were beautiful. The gardens, the landscape, and the livestock all created a harmonious living space. 

Bienvenidos. A warm welcome to the Bongic Community.

Our hosts prepared a total of four meals for us, which featured typical foods such as yuca or heart of palm. There were certainly some other things that I was not familiar with. Curiously, all of our meals were served on a plate or bowl, but also with a piece of leaf in between the plate and our food. The meals they prepared us demonstrated the generosity of the people. I could see how limited their supply of meat was, for example, yet they still chose to serve us meat. 

You can observe a typical meal prepared by the host, with small portions of hearty food served atop a piece of banana leaf.

Following our dinner, the children prepared a number of songs and dances for us. Then, the women told us stories about the community. I was particularly impressed with their story regarding how they founded a local indigenous women’s organization in 2010 called Organización de Mujeres Unidas Bonyic, which consists of 13 women and one male. Their organization is primarily responsible for the educational tourism that the Naso people have begun. This group of women petitioned funds from the government, affording them access to building materials to begin their project. Ultimately they constructed the Hostal Posada Media Luna, where we lodged.

The Hostal Posada Media Luna can house up to 12 visitors at a time.

This group of women shared an impressive story of empowerment and triumph. Although they lacked formal education, they composed a compelling grant superior to other applicants. In this grant, they needed to articulate their business plan to develop their community through mediums of tourism, ethnobotany, and other indigenous traditions and knowledge. Upon receiving the grant, their next step was to design and architect dormitories and another area to host events. Finally, they realized their plan and worked laboriously to construct these buildings by hand, with very little help from their spouses. This feat highlights their abilities to overcome economic and educational barriers, in addition to personal struggles. They shared that on multiple occasions their homes and livestock had been completely wiped away due to heavy rains and flooding.

Students listened to the women leaders expound on the establishment of their organization Organización de Mujeres Unidas Bonyic.

Due to the hardships the community has faced, the women feel pressed to secure forms of preserving and edifying the livelihood of their community, as they have done with their initial project with Hostal Posada Media Luna. Their organization continues other projects that enriches the lives of its community members on group and individual levels. One organizer had the opportunity to travel to Cuba to attend a business-related workshop. The organization sponsors such events because they aspire to provide better services to their guest, with the aim of benefitting their community, as well. I would have never guessed the accomplishments of these humble women, but now I admire them more than they know. They are full of knowledge and wisdom, and I wish I could have spent more time listening to all of their experiences.

Landscapes of Parque Internacional La Amistad

The Panamanian Color Spectrum

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Panama City, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

On Saturday, September 14, our cohort embarked on a trip to Panama City. Not knowing much about Panama, I did not know what to expect from the country. At dinner, one of our guides, Jorge, asked me what I knew about Panama previously. I looked at him with embarrassment, and admitted that I did not know much besides (1) it is home to the Panama Canal, and (2) it was once occupied by the United States. So, he asked me what I thought about Panama, so far. Truthfully, I told him I was surprised to see so many Afro-Latinos in Panama. (Both of our guides that day were Afro-Latinos). Previously, I was under the impression that most Afro-Latinos come from Caribbean countries, like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Jorge understood my misconception and shared that he experienced this in the United States before. Once, he lived in the US for about 2 years. He said that many African Americans would look at him crazy when they heard him speak Spanish, and give him a look that said, “How do you know how to speak Spanish?” Meanwhile, fellow Latinos were also astonished and said things to him like, “Who taught you how to speak Spanish?” So, although many, even other Latinos, are surprised by Afro-Latinos, Panamanians seem completely accustomed to the mixture of color that exists within their country.

Jonathan Davis served as one of our tour guides for four days in Panama City. Here he is pictured at Biomuseo, a museum of biodiversity at Panama.

Although within the United States exists a multitude of different cultures and ethnicities, certain environments are not always representative of this diversity. I was surprised to see every color of Panamanians eating at the restaurant. Similar to the United States, Panama has also had a history of racism towards Afro-descendants. We had the opportunity to visit the Afro-Antillean Canal Workers Museum, a place that honors the contributions and hardships of African descendants in the country. As the name of the museum implies, many Afro-descendants, particularly from Jamaica and Barbados, traveled to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. However, Afro-descendants and other minority groups commonly faced racial discrimination that manifested itself in segregational practices and wage inequalities between black and white workers.

This mural is found right outside the Afro-Antillean Canal Workers Museum, and pays homage to the Afro ancestry of the country.

Many of the Panama Canal laborers stayed in Panama, despite the hardships, due to the lack of employment in their home countries. The museum recognizes individuals’ contributions in the fields of politics, entrepreneurship, sports, civic engagement, arts, and education.  In present day, roughly 15% of Panama’s population are Afro-Panamanian. Some have even become popular figures in United Statesian media. For example, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali is remembered most for her role as Ashley Banks, a principal family member in the household of Will Smith. Another upcoming star, Tessa Thompson, also has Afro-Panamanian heritage, and is known for her performance as the Valkyrie in the Marvel Comic Universe and earlier performances in the Creed series.

These exhibits highlight Afro-Antillean culture in Panama.

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