Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Category: Costa Rica (page 1 of 8)

An Unorthodox Study Abroad Experience

Author: Mia Casas

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

For my senior year at Valparaiso University, I planned to study abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica. Truthfully, the semester prior, I waited til the last minute to decide that this was an experience I wanted to commit myself to doing. I was unsure if it was possible, given that I needed to fulfill certain requirements in order to maintain my May 2020 graduation date. Still, I worked diligently to meet with my academic advisors, talk with my study abroad advisor, complete application forms, apply for scholarships, etc. all within a limited timeframe. I am proud to say that I did it. I met all the deadlines and was accepted into the program, and even earned a scholarship from the Study Abroad office. For the rest of the summer, I worked to save up money for my study abroad experience, and looked forward to the payoffs, come Fall Semester.

Sadly, exactly two weeks prior to my scheduled departure, I was in an accident that left me with several severe injuries. I fractured my nose, my orbital socket, two fingers, my shoulder, and four ribs. In the process, I punctured my lung, causing it to partially collapse. So I was hospitalized for 5 days, and advised not to fly for at least a month. I was devastated, and couldn’t bear the thought of not going to Costa Rica and trying to register for classes at the main campus. Nonetheless, I needed to inform the Study Abroad office of my change in circumstances and told them I could not participate in the program any longer.

To my surprise, I received an email back from Heidi Michelsen, the Director for the Costa Rica study abroad program, pitching the idea of arriving to Costa Rica at a later date. She wrote to me saying, “We are willing to work with you on other configurations of classes and timelines,” in addition to sending prayers for a speedy recovery. I was overwhelmed by the amount of love and support I received from her to help fulfill my dream of studying in Costa Rica. She offered me support in every way possible, from modified class schedules, homestay accommodations, learning accommodations, and even healthcare accommodations — more help than I ever could have imagined. 

This building is commonly known as Casa Adobe, but also serves as the Praxis Center and Valparaiso Study Center.

Ultimately, we made arrangements for me to arrive about a month into the program, September12 to be exact. I was able to complete online coursework with Heidi and the rest of the cohort for the first four weeks, and arrived just in time to travel with the rest of the cohort for our study tour to Panama and the Caribbean coast. Heidi even helped make arrangements for my mom to travel with me for the first few days. Although I certainly did miss out on some experiences (the cohort has already participated in several other excursions),  Heidi and the rest of my peers went above and beyond to make the most of my situation. I participated in class lectures via video calls, I even attended sessions with guest speakers via video calls, and the group took pictures and recordings of their excursions to share with me. 

Outside the wall enclosing Casa Adobe you will find a number of poetic verses painted for the public.

When we arrive back to San Jose, we will all begin Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica, and I will resume the rest of the Costa Rica program as normal. I salute the Study Abroad office and Heidi Michelsen for their efforts and concentration in accommodating each student’s specific needs. The level of service Heidi and other staff have demonstrated is not found in every college campus, nor in every office at Valparaiso University. I am grateful for my experience, thus far, and look forward to continuing this experience in Costa Rica.

(left to right) Director Heidi Michelson, student Madeline Brown, Casa Adobe Resident and Valparaiso alumna Hannah Purkey, student Veronica Campbell, student Tate Elie, student Mia Casas, and Praxis Staff Roland Harris enjoy dinner as a cohort.

Back to Santa Rosa

Author: Sarah Germann

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

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

After staying in Limón for a month I returned to my original host family in Santa Rosa for a few weeks before the end of the semester. The culture in Limón and that in Santa Rosa are a little different. The family I was staying with in Limón was a rural family, they did not socialize as much as my family in Santa Rosa, and they used the Spanish language differently. This made it harder for me to communicate, and take longer for me to feel at home in Limón than I had expected.

I had assumed I would feel relief once I returned from rural Limón to the more familiar and suburban Santa Rosa because I would be in a more urban environment. But, what really stuck out to me was the amount of affection I received the first few days of being back. I felt welcomed back into the entire community, first by my host family, and then many others; friends from Frisbee, the other Valpo students, families and young adults who live at Casa Adobe (the house where we take classes), and the other students in the Field Biology program with ICADS. After returning from Limón, it became clear just how many different groups of people I had gotten to know and become a part of in the San Jose and Santa Rosa area during the first couple of months of my semester.

During my last couple weeks staying in Santa Rosa I became much more comfortable in the area. I am not sure if I felt more comfortable because I had grown more use to the culture of Costa Rica during the month of April when I was in Limón, or if I had missed Santa Rosa while I was away. For whatever reason, I felt as if there was a click in those last couple of weeks, as if I had taken on the country’s culture and it had become more natural to me. I greeted people in a typical Costa Rican manner without thinking too hard about it, I rode the train and traveled around with much more ease, and I found the rhythm of life to be more comfortably familiar. It became my home, because I had adjusted. Speaking Spanish also became much easier in the last couple of weeks in Costa Rica. Again, it was as if there was a click in my brain and I could understand much more and speak more fluidly so that I could more easily enjoy conversations and social gatherings. I was greatly pleased with this change in myself particularly because of how far I had come since the beginning of the semester, when I had been shy and uncertain of almost every action I took and had found it very difficult to understand or speak the language.

My integration into the community of Santa Rosa made leaving harder. The people there are very warm and friendly, and have a life style centered around family and friends. However, it was proven to me that it is possible to become a part of another community and make friends rather quickly, even when there is a language barrier. I am encouraged to lean into my community, by getting to know and spend time with people as well as paying attention to the needs of others living in the area around me, when I return to my home in Valparaiso.

Some women of Santa Rosa, from left to right; Erin (Casa Adobe, Ivannia’s former host student), Lydia (Valpo student), Ivannia (Lydia’s host mom), Iva (my host mom), myself, and Teresa (sitting in front, Casa Adobe)

Nicole (left), Paul (right) and myself (center). The three of us all lived in Santa Rosa and played Ultimate Frisbee. We would ride to practice and team gatherings together in Paul’s car, and they became some really close friends of mine.

Panama Trip

Author: Sarah Germann

Location: Changuinola, Panama and Nazo Indigenous Community, Panama

Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

The other Valpo student and I traveled to Costa Rica under tourist status, meaning that after 90 days in the country we needed to leave Costa Rica to renew our visas. Thus, in mid-April, we went on a trip to Panama!

There were a couple subtle differences I noticed between Costa Rica and Panama. First, after two days, I noticed that handshakes were normal. At first I thought I was receiving handshakes because the people there knew I was from the United States, trying to be welcoming. But, I received only handshakes and was never offered a kiss on the cheek. I may have imagined it, but the handshakes did seem a little firmer and more practiced than the ones I have received in Costa Rica. A clarifying question to our guide confirmed that handshakes are the normal form of greeting in Panama. The handshake is probably due to the influence of the United States in their country.

Another thing I saw in Panama which may have been influenced by the United States was the military base near the Nazo indigenous community. The buildings in the base were painted with the same brown and green army pattern as I have seen used in the United States. We were told that the soldiers in training were brought to that point, where they learn jungle survival in order to outlive their opponents. There was a platform where the soldiers could face a flag and salute. Embarrassingly, when I first saw the painted buildings I thought the camp was originally a US training camp. It very much resembled a United States style military training camp. I cannot help but think there must have been some really heavy US influence there. By contrast, Costa Rica is a very peaceful country, and basically lacks a military.

In a way, the similarities between the US and Panama made me feel just a little more at home in Panama than I did in Costa Rica. Though there were only very minor differences, having more cultural similarities can make a person more comfortable in an area though they are very far from their original country. This, obviously, applies even when there is a language barrier, as I had the same challenge of understanding Spanish in both Costa Rica and Panama. The realization that even small similarities between a foreign culture and home country can facilitate ease during transition and comfort brings up a number of questions. I would be interested to see if I would be more comfortable in a different culture which speaks English.

My experience in Panama compared to that in Costa Rica serves to highlight the fact that our cultural norms, such as common greetings, is instilled in us so that when our norms are followed we feel “normal” and when we are not used to the norms, we feel strange. From now on I should have a greater appreciation and awareness for people who are new to my own country.

Our boat ride to the military base in the Nazo Indigenous Community

A boat on the beach in the Nazo Indigenous Community.

Surviving Jumanji

Author: Sarah Germann

Location: Limón, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

OK, so it’s not Jumanji. It’s an agroforestry system in the Costa Rican lowlands of Limón, a tropical region, with many more bugs and critters than I am used to, found all over the area, and a heat and humidity that does not change or abate. But, to this US mid-western girl who’s never been this close to the equator, bumbling around this pathless farm inside a tropical forest, where hardly anyone else ventures, felt a bit like falling into Jumanji.

For the month of April, I am staying with José Moore and his family in his house on the front part of his property. He lives on his farm, where they grow banana and cacao, the plant used to make chocolate, and a few mango trees. My purpose here is to gather data for my independent research project for the field biology program with ICADS (Institute for Central American Studies), in which I am participating for the second half of my semester apart from the rest of my Valpo Cohort, while they work at internships (see my 5th Blog, So Much Traveling!, for more information about my the Environmental/Biology program with ICADSJ). My research is focused on vegetation measurements and bird species analysis. I am comparing two sections of the farm to see if a difference in basal area, canopy cover, and/or groundcover (vegetation measurements) results in more habitat for more biodiversity indicated by the number of bird species found in the area.

Metal trays located at the front of the farm to the side of the house where cacao is dried before it is sold.

A pile of cacao shells, one of many found all over the farm

One day during the first week, I prepared to explore the back half of the farm on my own. No one had taken me into this section of the farm, but I needed to check it out in order to start my research. After staying on the path to bird watch, I tried to walk around the border of the farm along a road and nearly got attacked by a dog which was bigger than the mastiff my family had growing up with. I tried to go down a slope instead, but was unsuccessful. It was so steep I could not walk on it. So, I decided to walk along the creek, which goes straight into the bottom of part 2 along its border. I stepped in a wasps’ nest and ran away screaming and swatting myself. I walked back to the house, my shoulder, chest and back stinging where the wasps had flown into my shirt. After this little adventure I was not too keen on going out into the second part of the farm another time. Indeed, I was afraid of the farm. Aside from these things, I also encountered many other things which deterred me from going into the farm alone; spiders nearly the size of my palm which wove huge golden webs, plants which when walked into, leave stinging red dots in an arching row across my legs, trees with thorns longer than my thumb, very many insects and ants of different kinds, and above all the fear of stepping or falling on a poisonous snake whose bite would be lethal.

A part of the trail running from the house at the front of the farm to the back of the farm. This is the clearest, easiest area to walk on the farm

A view of banana and ground cover

Despite these things I got back out into the farm to do my research. After a few weeks of spending 7-10 hours out walking around each day, I realized that I had become comfortable on the farm. The path has become so familiar that, when in a hurry have jogged the steps it takes to leap upon the concrete blocks and iron bars in order to get across the creek where I had originally gone slowly with caution. I learned by heart the trail and many areas off the trail, and became confident that I knew where I was going. Although I have only been in Limón 3-4 weeks, it has become like a home, and I have learned to love this farm that I originally feared. I am honestly impressed at how quickly I was able to become accustomed to this place.

The Moore family puppy, Mia, following me around during my early morning bird watching

So Much Traveling!

Author: Sarah Rosa Germann

Location: All over Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

The way I see it, my semester has been divided into four sections. For the month of January, I took a geography class on Central America with Heidi Michelsen, a Valpo professor, at Casa Adobe, the Valparaiso Study Abroad Center in Costa Rica. In February, I took six credits of Spanish at the University of Costa Rica and continued my class with Heidi. For these months, I was with my Valparaiso cohort, the other four students who are studying here and living in Santa Rosa from Valpo with me. In March, I separated from the usual Valpo program. While the other VU students began internships, I joined nine other students from various places across the United States in a field biology research program at ICADS, the Institute for Central American Development Studies. In January and February, those students had taken classes in Geography and Spanish similar to what I had done. This section of the program was called “Block 1.” In March, we began “Block 2.”

The focus of Block 2 was exactly what I had come to Costa Rica for. We traveled all over the country and we studied the environments we were in as they related to human geography, and sustainability of both human society and the natural environment. We traveled to two different places each week, staying 2 or 3 nights in each location, either in a lodge or with a host family. We touched base at our host families in San Jose, or in my case in Santa Rosa, briefly on the weekends. First we went to Longo Maï {Red Arrow on the map below}, a commune made up of El Salvadoran refugees. (Check out my blog solely about Longo Maï!) Second we went to Villa Mills {Orange Arrow}, one of the highest places in elevation in Costa Rica, where we did bird watching. Third we went to El Yuë {Yellow Arrow}, where we stayed in a lodge built for rural community tourism. Here we visited agroforestry farms and Cahuita, a beautiful beach. Fourth we went to Puerto Viejo {Green Arrow} for a couple of nights, which is a common place for many tourists to visit in Costa Rica, with its beautiful beaches and thrilling night life. During our stay there, we visited the Indigenous community of Bribri. Fifth we went to Isla de Chita {Dark Blue Arrow}, which is an island in between the Peninsula of Guanacaste and the mainland. Here we had the opportunity to go into a mangrove and learn how to harvest pianguas by the roots. Sixth we went to the community of Ortega {Purple Arrow}, in the mainland of Guanacaste, where we learned about the sugarcane plantation, what life is like in the community, and community opinions on tourism. Having seeing all these places, I feel like this program has truly given me a chance to see many different places in Costa Rica. What a great way to learn about a country.

The past three weeks have been an intense and exciting learning experience. One thing that greatly impacted the experience for me was the fact that, aside from in Puerto Viejo, I did not have any access to WiFi and very limited cellular connection. This allowed to me to “unplug” and focus more on my experience in the communities I was in. The people in these communities live a simpler life than I am used to. They live more slowly than I am used to, and most need to focus on the land and the local community around them. This gives me a new perspective on my fast-pace western life-style, where it is common for a lot of people to have no interactions with their neighbors. Being in these communities, which I was not used to, and speaking a language that is not my first language required me to be intentional about forming relationships, having conversations, and figure out what my host families rhythm of life was like.

The field experience I gained from my time was also invaluable. I had a chance to dip my toes into many methods of research, both for ecological and social purposes. We analyzed the biodiversity of insects on an agroforestry farm, tree and plant density on the agroforestry farm, the sustainability of harvesting a species (pianguas) from its natural environment, biodiversity of birds in both a region with human activity and in an undisturbed area, community relations with a monoculture pineapple plantation (Pindeco), community relations with tourists, challenges in rural youth education, and we participated in aquatic river monitoring by catching and identifying fish and macroinvertebrates. I have learned so much about conducting research and about the areas we visited in Costa Rica. These past three weeks of March has to have been one of the most influential and educational experiences I have had in college. I highly recommend this program to any Environmental Science or Geography student who is planning on studying abroad.

A view in Villa Mills.

A view of the sunset in Ortega.

Buildings in the Indigenous community of Bribri.

The boat which took us to and from Isla de Chita.

Map of Costa Rica with the approximate locations of places we stayed.


Author: Sarah Rosa Germann

Location: Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

There are three well-known volcanoes here in Costa Rica which stand next to each other in a row, Volcán Irazu, Volcán Barba, and Volcán Poás. So far I have seen two of these, Barba and Poás. Although they stand right next to each other, these two volcanoes are remarkably different from each other, and also provide visitors with very different experiences.

As many people know, when a volcano erupts it often blows away its top and creates a crater. Both of these volcanoes have a crater that is visible to the visitor. The first volcano I visited was Poás, which is reach by taking a short walk along a flat cleared and open path to a wooden platform with differing levels which overlook the crater. Visitors must wear a helmet to protect them from potential debris which could fall on them from the smoke coming out of the crater and the surrounding area. Poás is still a very active volcano. In fact, it erupted the very day after we visited! I admit, we were lucky. The crater had smoke coming out of it, which smelled like sulfur. Some yellow and green could be seen on the floor of the crater as it came out from inside the rock. The walls and much of the surrounding areas were exposed rock.

Volcán Barba, by contrast, seemed as if it must have been a very long time since it has erupted. In order to reach the volcano, I needed to hike on a narrow trail in dense forest and uneven terrain for a number of kilometers. The walls of the crater and surrounding areas were covered by dense trees and ferns like the rest of the forest, and the crater itself was filled with water, forming a lake.

Before visiting Costa Rica, I had never seen a volcano closely before. I was even more impressed when seeing Vocán Barba after having seen Volcán Poás because Poás gave me a perspective, or some context, for seeing Barba. The volcano craters were different because they formed at different times and in different ways. They are similar to each other because the basic shape of them started out in the same way, with an eruption from rock in relatively the same geographic area. But, they are different today because of what they have been exposed to. I think this concept can be applied to people as well. We are all people, with the same basic form.

But, we are different from each other because of our stories. The craters are very similar shapes, and so when I saw Barba I could imagine that it once looked dry and empty like Poás. I imagine it must have taken a lot of time and a number of geomorphic processes for Volcán Barba to become what it is today. If I had not seen Volcán Poás first, I am not sure I would have understood what I was looking at. I wonder how often I look at something without a context for what I am seeing. Having context allows a person to have a greater appreciation for what is in front of them. I hope that, in a much larger way, living for a semester in Costa Rica will give me a context to see the United States when I come back home.

Longo Maï

Author: Sarah Rosa Germann

Location: Longo Maï, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Longo Maï is a rural community in Costa Rica. The community was founded by Nicaraguan refugees in the 1980s, but is currently comprised mostly of Salvadorian refugees. Longo Maï is a commune, as the community functions in a self-sustaining way. Most of the food which the people eat is grown in Longo Maï, and each neighbor shares what they have with the other so that everyone has a variety of foods on their tables. I was very impressed as my host grandmother showed me the property around her house with plant after plant of edible foods; trees with pipas, limes, cacao, and more were only a few steps from her door.

I have visited Longo Maï twice so far during my semester in Costa Rica, once in January with my Valpo Cohort, and once in March with my group of fellow environmental students and the organization ICADS. During my time there, I learned from the community members about their way of life. The community members follow a life style of simple living in peace and harmony with people and with the earth. They admit that their way of life is counter-intuitive to the way the rest of the world lives, but it is a good way of living, and it seems to work very well.

During my January visit to Longo Maï I interviewed a number of individuals who were witnesses to violence during the war in El Salvador during the 1980s. Their experience has given them an exceptional abhorrence to violence which extends to an abhorrence of any amount of greed and/or spite for other people. They not only dislike war, they dislike the mentality of capitalism. This is because capitalism causes people to work against others or exploit others instead of working together and sharing. If everyone were to share what they had and live in harmony with others, there would be much less suffering in the world. The people of Longo Maï live in harmony with each other by sharing the food which grows in their yards so that everyone has plenty, and by sharing wisdom and knowledge about farming techniques so that everyone can produce their crops efficiently and well.

The people of Longo Maï live very simply. They do not live a consumerist life-style because they have everything they need right where they are in Longo Maï. On my second trip I spent some time on the farm of Wade More. He showed us his land and the way he grows his crops. As it turns out, the government makes it very hard for farmers like More to produce organically, trying to impose standards on them which they have found do not work for their specific farm. For example, in his vegetable garden Wade uses chicken manure as a fertilizer. He needed to use a different kind of fertilizer in order to obtain an organic license. But, when he switched, his vegetables did not grow. The farmers of Longo Maï know their land, and what works to make their crops grow. In this way they live in harmony with the land.

Wade also talked to us a lot about the concept of perceived needs. This is when a person believes they need something, or wants something, that they do not actually need. He said than many times people believe they need something even though they do not, especially in our western societies. Consuming more than we need is wasteful and harmful to the earth.

The people of Longo Maï invite tourists and visitors from Northern countries into their community so that we may have an opportunity to learn from them and gain a new perspective on our own lives. After my visit, I will remember to evaluate what I need versus what I think I need, consider where my food comes from, and remember that living peacefully with others is better for me and for the environment than living in contention.

I found Longo Maï to be a very neat and beautiful place. Please enjoy some of my favorite photos which I took in the community below.

Just upstream from a popular swimming spot.

A horse in a yard near my host family’s house.

Baby ducks and their mother in a little stream near a foot path. (Ducks in Longo Maï do not mind people being near them very much.)

The porch at Edit’s house. (Edit is the woman who takes charge of organizing the tourist who come through Longo Maï.)

The wood burning stove Edit cooks tortillas on, in her house.

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.

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