Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

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Expectations and Reflections

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

It is impossible to summarize everything that I learned or took away from my experience in Costa Rica in a blog post. Over a month after returning to the States, I’m still untangling this mess of emotions, from gratitude and love for the experiences I had and the people I met, to profound grief for the seven weeks I lost. So far, what’s helped me has been reflecting on some of the little things, from dinner table customs to the treatment of time, which then allow for me to draw greater connections and reflect more deeply about my experiences.

I noticed one difference between my culture and Costa Rican culture during my first meal in the country. Heidi picked me up from the airport and brought me to my host family’s house, and we all ate lunch together. While we were eating, Heidi explained to me that, in Costa Rica, it is respectful to leave your hands on the table while eating. In the United States, it’s rude to do that, so this was the first small behavior that I changed to respect Costa Rican culture. This situation also helped me to pay attention to the subtle differences — hand gestures, table manners, daily practices — that were not as obvious as the dramatic changes in climate and language, but still had an impact on my life.

I found out about another cultural difference before getting to Costa Rica. I have friends who have already studied in Costa Rica, and they told me about the big difference between “gringo time” and “tico time”. They told me that, in Costa Rica, the exact start time of meetings and activities matters less, and there are only a few exceptions to this rule — some classes, medical appointments, some religious services, and train schedules. In Costa Rica, I frequently had to ask Heidi if a class or activity was going to start at “gringo time” (exactly on time) or at “tico time” (a little later). In my culture in the United States, I frequently heard the phrase “early is on time, on time is late.” In my high school, during the school day and in my extracurricular activities like marching band and theatre, there were consequences for students who arrived late. As a result, personally, I try to be punctual, so I don’t inconvenience others. It stresses me out when things don’t start on time. Gradually I learned to relax with respect to time in Costa Rica — it’s not necessary to know exactly when something is going to happen. I hope this new attitude doesn’t cause too many problems for me now that I’m going to have more “gringo time” meetings in the future!

In my semester abroad, I also learned a lot about the religious differences between my part of the United States and my part of Costa Rica, which I’ve talked about extensively in other posts. Out of everything I learned about religion in Costa Rica, the most important thing was not something academic — it was very personal. I had often heard that Catholics in Costa Rica did not accept LGBTQ+ people. However, after a few weeks living with my host family, I told my host parents that I have a girlfriend. I was nervous, but everything was fine. My host family is very Catholic and religious, so I was afraid, but they are very inclusive and love all of their “gringa daughters” (as they affectionately call us), more than anything else. The first question my host mom asked after I told her was “well, what’s your girlfriend like?”, showing me that everything was normal and okay. And afterward, nothing changed between me and my host family — we’re still very close, and we love each other a lot. From all of this, it reinforced for me not to judge or stereotype people based on their religion or culture. Everyone is capable of prioritizing love.

Before I went to Costa Rica, a professor gave me the advice to not have any expectations about my experiences: just to observe, learn, and stay in the moment. Even after taking this advice to heart, I still had some basic expectations about how my semester was going to go — introductory classes, travel course, then internship — and these were not met because I had to leave seven weeks early.

But as much as I can sadly reflect, I can also remember my wonderful memories. The most important thing I took away from my experiences wasn’t from my classes, the trips I took, or the Spanish I learned — it was from my time with my host family. I don’t have younger siblings in my US family, so with my tica family, I learned how to be an older sister. I re-learned how to play, how to relax after a difficult day of classes, and how to appreciate the small moments with my little siblings. I cannot express all that my tica family means to me, but one thing I can take away is to value my time with family and loved ones, and to remember to make time to play and laugh, even in the difficult moments.

In Costa Rica, I learned that I am capable of doing more than I thought I was, in both my classes and in my life. I hope that now, I will listen as well as I can, think more critically, not be afraid to try new things, value my time with my loved ones, stay empathetic, and keep asking questions. Moving forward, I will continue to untangle the web of what I learned, what I can change, and what I can stay curious about.

Religion, Rights, and Marriage Equality in Costa Rica and Cuba

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

On the surface, Costa Rica is doing well when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ+ people. There are some non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in areas like work and commerce, and marriage equality will be legalized in May. At the same time as these political advances, Costa Rica remains a Catholic country: legally as the state religion, and popularly as the religious identity of three-fourths of the population. These seemingly contradictory realities have complex roots and results in the fields of politics, Christianity, and history, as well as implications for the lives of individuals.

To gain a more personal perspective on the interrelatedness of LGBTQ+ rights, identity, and Christianity in Latin America, I conducted an interview with Alex*, an ordained Lutheran pastor who has lived in Costa Rica for twelve years. Alex is also gay and was born and raised in Cuba. As such, he has unique insight into the connections between LGBTQ+ rights, Christianity, and politics in Latin America. I interviewed Alex and researched to learn about the history of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality in Costa Rica and Cuba. I spoke with Alex about his experience growing up and working in the church throughout his life, and his personal experience with the interactions between Christianity and LGBTQ+ identity in both countries.

According to recent studies, 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic (Velzer 2015). There is no available data about the percentage of the population who identifies as LGBTQ+. The first Roman Catholic missionary came to present-day Costa Rica in 1522, and shortly after, the Spanish colony was officially established in 1524 (Holland 2002). After colonization, Roman Catholic ideology was pushed onto indigenous peoples in Central America. It is difficult to know much about how Indigenous cultures in Costa Rica historically treated LGBTQ+ people, because the surviving narratives are almost entirely from the perspectives of colonizers, but there is some evidence of wider acceptance and normalization of diverse sexualities and gender identities in indigenous Latin America (Fernandez 2004b). Same-sex sexual activity was punishable by death until 1575, when the Spanish crown decided that indigenous people should not be judged by the Inquisition in the same way as Spaniards “because they were new to the Faith and, thus, they were not gente de razón [people capable of reasoning]” (Fernandez 2004b). Homosexuality was viewed as a “nefarious sin”, and after independence in 1821, it remained politically punishable until its decriminalization in the 1870s under the liberal president Tomás Guardia (Fernandez 2004a).

Wider social acceptance in Costa Rica followed trends in Western societies that began in the 1960s and 70s (Fernandez 2004a), and remaining laws that criminalized “scandalous sodomy”, which was not well defined and was rarely used as a charge in court, were repealed in 2002 (ILGA 2009). Since the election of President Carlos Alvarado Quesada in 2018, LGBTQ rights in Costa Rica have continued to improve. The issue of same-sex marriage was a major issue in the 2018 election, and after winning by a landslide, Alvarado has led Costa Rica to give people the right to change their legal gender, and has promoted the acceptance of the ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by June 2020 (Henley 2018).

From a legal perspective, the rights of LGBTQ people today look similar in Costa Rica and Cuba — both are pending or awaiting legalization of same-sex marriage (Paz Martín 2018), and both recently legalized official gender changes (Kirk and Huish 2018). However, Costa Rica and Cuba have vastly different histories around LGBTQ issues. The Cuban government blatantly persecuted LGBTQ+ people as recently as the 1960s, when men who were suspected to be homosexual were incarcerated in labor camps (Arguelles and Rich 1984). Yet today, Cuba is considered one of the most socially accepting countries of LGBTQ+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean (Smith 2018). This is likely related to the fact that Cuba’s Communist government is not associated with Catholicism, and Cuba’s population is much less Christian than Costa Rica’s: one-fourth of the population identifies as non-religious, and while 60% of the population identifies as Catholic, less than 5% of that group attend mass regularly (WOLA 2012). Cuba’s complex sociopolitical and religious history cannot be explored within the context of this story, so the focus will remain on Cuba’s recent history, which relates most closely with Alex’s life experiences.

Alex said his childhood in Cuba was different from most Latin Americans’ childhoods because Cuba is a communist country: education and healthcare are relatively good, but freedom and human rights are more complicated. Alex grew up in and was always connected to the church, which was unusual for Cubans. He wasn’t open about his sexuality while living in Cuba, because of general sentiments about LGBTQ+ people, and especially after he was ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian church. He knew some LGBTQ+ people who were out in their lives and to their church communities. However, these people did not typically feel comfortable enough to display public affection with their partners, to talk about their identities openly, or to seek church leadership or ordination. In general, according to Alex, LGBTQ+ people in the Presbyterian church in Cuba lived a life of “toleration in silence.”

Alex drew comparisons between the culture of his Presbyterian church in Cuba and mainstream Costa Rican Catholic culture when he moved there. Most Costa Ricans knew that LGBTQ+ people existed, but they misunderstood the topic and didn’t want to talk or think about it. People would quietly disagree, but avoid direct confrontation. Alex became a Lutheran pastor in Costa Rica, and found an accepting, open community that contrasted his experience in the Presbyterian church in Cuba. In the Lutheran church, Alex could be out as gay and work as a pastor, which he had never thought would be possible. He was welcomed in a community based on inclusion and social change and was able to have a “reencounter” with theology and sexuality. Many people with different histories of being excluded from the church came to his church, which helped Alex realize how important acceptance and inclusion are. Compared to the millions of Costa Rican Catholics, only a few thousand Costa Ricans identify as Lutheran (Bartlett 2008). Alex believes that now is the time for a “moment of integration and acceptance” in wider Costa Rican Christianity and culture.

The recent marriage equality debate in Costa Rica has been complex and polarizing in Costa Rica, which is frustrating for Alex, but will hopefully be resolved when marriage equality is legalized in late -May. The issue arose most recently in 2015, when due to an error with government identification paperwork, two women, Laura Flórez-Estrada and Jazmín Elizondo, got legally married. The couple, as well as those who participated in the official ceremony, were accused by the state of “ideological falsehood to the detriment of the family” (Madrigal 2019). This lawsuit led to the 2018 decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Costa Rica’s Sala Constitucional, which stated that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and should be legalized in the next 18 months (Rico 2019). Alex described being frustrated with the public discourse around these issues. He said that it led to radicalization: moderate Christians who previously had no opinion on marriage equality were led by politicians and media to adopt increasingly hateful positions. However, he was grateful that Alvarado Quesada, the pro-marriage equality candidate, won the presidential election in 2018, and hoped that after legalization in May, the issue will turn back into something that can be discussed on the individual human level, instead of on overwhelming political scales.

In Cuba, Alex is less personally impacted by debates about marriage equality, but still is invested in how the issue is changing and progressing. Political forces in Cuba work differently because of the one-party system: Alex was very clear to express that no one in Cuba has political power outside of the government party. However, he said the Church still has influence over political decisions, as evidenced by the changing discussion around marriage equality about a year ago. While drafting a new Constitution in 2018, the Party decided to legalize marriage equality. Alex thinks this was because the Party wanted to placate and stay on the side of Western foreigners, presenting an image of Cuba as a place with democracy and progressivism. However, due to fear of the church’s response, they changed their minds and removed the accepting language from the draft of the Constitution, saying they may put it into the draft of the new Family Code instead (Paz Martín 2018). Alex was hopeful that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will continue to improve in Cuba but recognizes that the complex interactions between the Party and the Church make predicting or influencing change difficult.

The relationship between history, Christianity, LGBTQ+ identity, and politics has its own manifestations and complexities in every country. There is a tendency in some areas of the “developed” world to either wholeheartedly celebrate or completely dismiss countries in Latin America as progressive or not, accepting or not. However, the truth in many Latin American countries, such as Cuba and Costa Rica, is much more complicated. Histories of colonialism, Catholic influence, polarization, and reform have led to confusing realities and seeming contradictions between law, public opinion, and everyday life. Adding a personal perspective to historical context facilitates a more complex, complete understanding of LGBTQ+ and Christian issues.

 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/2y32okB

Venezuelan Refugees in Costa Rica: Political Background and Personal Narrative

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

It is impactful enough to look at Costa Rica’s immigration situation from a demographic and statistical perspective. As of 2014, immigrants made up 9 percent of Costa Rica’s population, the largest percentage of any Latin American country (Arias 2014). Most immigrants in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, with other significant portions from Panama, the United States, El Salvador, and Venezuela (Migration For Development 2018). Yet behind these numbers, every immigrant in Costa Rica has a story. To understand the refugee situation in Costa Rica and political violence in Venezuela from a personal perspective, I interviewed María* about being a refugee from Venezuela in Costa Rica. We discussed her reasons for leaving, her experience with the immigration system, and her personal dreams for the future.

During the presidencies of Hugo Chavez (from 1999 to 2013) and Nicolás Maduro (from 2013 until now), political repression and economic crisis have been the norm in Venezuela, worsening in the past several years. Hyperinflation, election fraud, shortages of important goods, and persecution of political opposition are just some of the problems Venezuelans have faced since 1999 (Human Rights Watch 2018). After Maduro was reelected in in 2018, Juan Guiadó, a political opposition leader, also declared himself president. Guiadó was formally recognized by many other governments, including the United States. However, most of the military and police forces in Venezuela still back Maduro, so he functionally has presidential power (BBC 2020). Since 2014, approximately 4.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country (BBC 2020). María and her family were among these refugees fleeing Venezuela in 2018.

Unlike other refugees who fled due to generally worsening economic and political circumstances, María and her family left because of a specific event: the assassination of her only brother during the El Junquito massacre of January 15, 2018. The massacre was an official attempt by the Venezuelan government to kill Óscar Pérez, leader of an opposition movement. In a mission called Operación Gedeón, five hundred troops were sent early in the morning to one house in El Junquito where Pérez and some companions were staying (Bellingcat 2018). Pérez and six of his supporters, including María’s brother, were killed, and others were arrested (Romero-Castillo 2018).

Not only was María’s family coping with their own grief, but the massacre made international news, and it was difficult for the families of the dead to get their loved ones’ bodies back from the government. Many of the other involved families also left the country. In María’s case, all three of her sisters and her mom left Venezuela — her mom left first, going to Peru just a few weeks after the massacre, while the rest of her extended family is now scattered elsewhere. During the months following her brother’s assassination, María and her family kept a very low profile. Her family suffered emotional and psychological pain, living in fear and under indirect and direct threats from the government. After several months of planning, María, her husband, and her two young children arrived in Costa Rica on August 3, 2018, a little over one and a half years ago.

Since 1950, Costa Rica’s government has remained stable. As a result, Costa Rica has a growing immigrant and refugee population, especially since crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua have escalated in the last two years. Among all the immigrants in Costa Rica, 100,000 (2% of the country’s population) are asylum seekers like María’s family (UNHCR Global Focus 2020). As of June 2019, Costa Rica hosted 28,870 Venezuelan refugees, including 16,236 asylum seekers and 5,692 people with residency or regular stay permits (UNHCR 2020a). According to Former President Chinchilla, “We are, in our hemisphere, the country that has received the second-highest migrant population, after the United States. We estimate that by the end of this year [2019] we will have about 100,000 Nicaraguans and 30,000 Venezuelans living with us” (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

María’s immigration experiences reflect the problems that have arisen from the surge in asylum seekers over the last few years. María and her family arrived just after the situation in Nicaragua worsened in April 2018. By August, the immigration system was overcrowded, understaffed, and slow. Increasing difficulties with the immigration system has led Costa Rica to ask for international assistance for dealing with the refugee crisis (Agence France-Presse 2019b). At the same time, the United Nations asked the country to expedite their processing of asylum requests for the sake of refugees and to combat rising xenophobia since 2018 (Agence France-Presse 2019a).

According to the UNHCR (or ACNUR in Spanish-speaking countries), there are several steps one must take to apply for refugee status in Costa Rica. After three months of residence in Costa Rica, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which takes several more months to process. Later, there is an interview with immigration authorities, and finally a waiting period to see whether the request for refugee status was approved or denied (UNHCR 2020b).

María talked about this process, and said it was frustrating because of how long each step has taken. Her family delayed leaving Venezuela in the first place to could get passports and other documents in order. Upon arrival in Costa Rica, her family received temporary documents that said they were seeking asylum, but this uncommon form of identification was confusing to potential employers and local authorities. Her husband had to wait many months to apply for a work permit, leaving them to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and social services to survive. Her family finally had their refugee application interview in January 2019. Several organizations, including ACNUR, HIAS, and RET, have provided her family with legal, social, and psychological support. At the time of this interview, in late January 2020, her family had still not heard anything about their application. Lawyers and immigration authorities have told them “tranquila,” that it could take years. While her husband has been able to work, it is generally harder to get jobs, and their family cannot leave the country. María said she would have liked to be able to visit her family in the United States and Peru, but she cannot until her refugee status is processed, so she feels a bit stuck. Many other refugees also share her frustration, as evidenced by the protests in Costa Rica led by Nicaraguan immigrants in 2018 and 2019 (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

While our interview focused on María’s reasons for leaving Venezuela and her immigration process in Costa Rica, her life is much more than her legal status and political history. She has two young children that keep her life “busy and crazy, but never boring.” She misses a lot from her home country, including her city, Caracas, and the warmer climate, but most of all “la gente”, the people. María has plenty of dreams and hopes for her future once her kids get older and she has more free time. While she has studied and worked in administration, she has a wide variety of interests in vocal music, theology, social services, and women’s issues. She would love to study theology and become a religious leader, life coach, or nonprofit worker. María views her difficult life experiences as a way to connect with others, particularly women, who have experienced harm, and guide them toward finding their vocation. Venezuela’s political crisis and Costa Rica’s immigration issues are striking enough while looking at the facts and statistics over time. When a personal perspective is brought in, it shines an even brighter light on how compassion and empathy are essential to building effective immigration systems and policies today.

 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/3fL5f2G

Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres: Context, Theology, and Personal Testimony

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted in January and February for my Central American history class.

I interviewed Doña Eva*, a woman from El Salvador, about Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres, a song from the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass. Our interview took place during a night of singing and sharing Latin American protest hymns, including this song, together. Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres (“You are the God of the poor”) was written by Carlos Mejía Godoy, and comes from his Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass). The mass was written in the mid-1970s, and was used as a religious protest song in Nicaragua and El Salvador throughout the 1980s, when El Salvador was in a civil war. Leftist protestors and guerrillas fought against a US-backed military government that was characterized by mass death and disappearance, torture, and targeting of Catholic clergy (Michelsen 2020). Vos Sos has a rich history, is part of a radical theological movement, reflects Latin American culture, and has intense personal significance to Central Americans, reflected in Eva’s testimony.

Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres was composed as the entrada (entrance song) for the Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass, published in the mid-1970s by Carlos Mejía Godoy (Vigil and Torrellas 1988). Following the Second Vatican Council and Latin American council meetings in the 1960s, Catholic composers began to write masses in the language and context of everyday people. The importance of Mejía Godoy’s life and music to Nicaraguan revolutionary movements cannot be overstated. Former Vice President of Nicaragua Sergio Ramirez described Mejía Godoy: “The [Sandinista] revolution owes everything to Carlos. He put the soundtrack to the revolution” (Salinas 2018).

Mejía Godoy is considered by some to be the most popular singer and composer in Nicaragua, famous for revolutionary and religious songs that came from Latin American folk traditions (Gioconda 2002). Before writing the Mass, Mejía Godoy had been in Catholic seminary in Costa Rica, but dropped out because it was run by “backwards” (atrasado) Spanish elites (Zeledón 2001). The mass was banned in Nicaragua by both the Church and the government following its publication because of its humanization of God and its Marxist undertones (Gurza 2003; Perez 2014; Zeledón 2001). Due to the political nature of his songs and their use in protests, Mejía Godoy has spent part of his life in exile. Many of his songs, including those in the mass, have more religious connotations and are less explicitly revolutionary. However, several songs of the album Guitarra Armada (“Armed Guitar”) give direct instructions on how to operate rifles that protestors stole from the Nicaraguan National Guard in the late 1970s. Mejía Godoy recently left Nicaragua again, fearing for his life because of his open personal and musical defiance of President Ortega’s regime (Salinas 2018).

The musical style of Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres is distinctly Nicaraguan. Mejía Godoy said he tried to incorporate rhythms and instruments from all parts of Nicaragua into the mass, just as he used his authentic conversations with Nicaraguan common people as inspiration for its lyrics (Zeledón 2001). Even as a newcomer to the genre, the language, and the song, at the music night, I found the chorus’ melody and harmonies easy to pick up in the moment. I was able to sing along in full voice by the time the last few choruses came around. The song’s inviting tone and quickly learnable chorus has likely enhanced its popularity and use as a protest song.

Several words, phrases, and themes stuck in my head while reflecting on the lyrics to Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres. The first and most obvious word that sticks out is the very first word of the song: vos. Unlike more traditional hymns and translations of the Bible, this song does not use the formal usted to refer to God. God is vos, the Latin American informal “you” used for everyday peoples. This relates to a friendly image of God, radically different from traditional paternalistic conceptions. The emphasis on God’s struggle also points out God’s humanness. The word “struggle” (luchás) is directly used in the first verse, to describe God struggling in the field and the city. Within the song, it is God’s nature as a worker that gives ordinary people the power and ability to speak directly to God.

While Vos Sos is not in the Misa Popular Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Popular Mass), it has still been sung in El Salvador in worship and other settings from the late 1970s onward (Peterson 1997), which explains the personal connection that Eva and other Salvadorans have to the song. When I asked Doña Eva what Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres says about God and humanity, she was overwhelmed by such a big question: “With this song you can say a lot.” The first point she focused on was that the song elevated and praised work that was traditionally viewed as “low” or inferior. She said the song is “a new way of looking at work” because it dignifies and admires people simply for working. The song reflects the culture of everyday working Central Americans, which relates to what Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest, said: the mass is not neutral — it is a mass against the oppressors (Zeledón 2001).

In addition to giving a fresh perspective on the value of work, the song also reframes God’s relationship to man. Doña Eva talked about how Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres shows God as a part of humanity, one who is walking and working alongside us. Drawing from liberation theology, the song paints a picture of God based on Jesus’ life: a God who is an integral part of humanity.

In many of Carlos Mejía Godoy’s other works, the social messages and calls for change are explicit. The social problems that Vos Sos highlights are more subtle, but are rooted in the concerns of liberation theology. God works and struggles in the lyrics of this song, but God is not sad or angry — God only has one mild complaint, and it’s about the flavor of shaved ice, not about social issues. Yet the focus on God’s many different jobs, some of which are physically taxing and all of which are low paying, highlight and center the struggles of the poor within the narrative. The mass and its opening song hold theological importance as an advancement in the continued centering of the poor within the Christian fight for justice.

When asked how singing Vos Sos made her feel, Doña Eva expressed a wide range of emotions. In El Salvador and when first arriving as a refugee in Costa Rica, she had fear associated with singing the song, but the fear always gave way to passion, a sense of pride in her identity, and adoring love for God. Singing the songs of the mass allows her to “desaugándome” (“let it all out”). The rich historical background, social and theological implications, and impact of words and themes of Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres contextualize these responses, enriching the song’s spiritual significance today.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/2WTKHfT

Studying, Traveling, and Everything in Between

Author: Emily Gustin

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Since my last post, I have been busy with schoolwork as well as traveling to new places near and far away. Other than my three classes at Westfield House (next to the Valpo dorm), I have two classes at a university called Anglia Ruskin. Currently, I am preparing to write essays for the end of term, one for each class– history of digital media and youth culture and media. The essays are worth 100% of my grade, which seems a little intimidating. At British universities, you are expected to prepare yourself for the lectures and seminars by doing the assigned readings and participating in class. However, your final grade is typically determined by a paper or presentation at the end of term. It took me a little while to get used to this system, but I think I like it– I enjoy the fact that there is more reading than homework that you have to turn in.

Five of us in the Valpo dorm don’t have class on Tuesdays, and we decided that we should make the most of that time. Throughout the month of February, we took two trips during the beginning of the week: one to Cork, Ireland, and the other to Prague, Czech Republic. We left on Monday nights and returned on Wednesday mornings for both trips. I have to admit, at times it felt like we could be on The Amazing Race— we were always rushing to catch a plane or a train or to get to class on Wednesday morning (we all made it). But it was definitely worth it for the amazing experiences I had!

Colorful houses in Cobh

In Cork, we explored the city and took a bus to a coastal town called Cobh (pronounced “cove”). Cobh had colorful buildings, fun cafes, and a gorgeous cathedral on the water. We didn’t have very much of an itinerary– we just enjoyed walking around and appreciating the view. We experienced snow, rain, and sunshine in the short time that we were in Ireland, and we all joked that we were all in Valparaiso (or “Val-pour-rain-snow”). Back in Cork, we went to some shops and an art museum, as well as a donut shop. Overall, I really loved our time in Cork and Cobh, and I would really like to visit Ireland again.

St. Colman’s Cathedral

Prague was another adventure, completely different than Ireland. The city was more fast-paced, filled with people, shops, and restaurants. I completely fell in love with the city and its architecture. Because Prague was never bombed from the war, many of the original buildings still remain, and they are stunning. We saw the Astronomical Clock, crossed the famous Charles Bridge and climbed up a hill (Petrinske Sady) to get an amazing view from above. We also went to Prague Castle and saw the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral. For dinner, I ate beef goulash, which is a common dish in Czech Republic and other central European countries. All of us also tried trdelnik, a dessert that we had seen advertised all over the city in almost every cafe. It’s ice cream in a cone, but the cone is a churro-like substance. I had strawberries and chocolate on mine, and it was delicious!

Old Town Square in Prague

I can’t believe that I am halfway through the semester– It feels as though I arrived in Cambridge yesterday. I have been so blessed to have this opportunity and can’t wait to see what comes next!

: Eva, me, Andrew, Gina, and Peyton

I couldn’t get enough of this view!

Restricted Travel

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

In light of the recently discovered virus, named Coronavirus, much of my travel has been restricted to the U.K.  We were additionally told that if the virus becomes progressively more prevalent in England, we risk being sent home. Obviously receiving this news was nerve-wracking and frustrating, yet, it has encouraged me to reflect positively on my time here.

a market I frequent in
Cambridge

I consistently find that when we are forced to enter a new chapter of our life, the process of leaving reminds us of our appreciation for the experience as a whole. Before arriving in Cambridge, the process of saying goodbye to friends, and reckoning with the idea that I would not be on Valpo’s campus for many months reminded me of my appreciation for my life as a Valpo student. In the midst of a busy semester, it is difficult to appreciate your experience as a student, and to reflect on the ways that your friends have positively impacted your life. Nonetheless, often times when we enter a new chapter of our lives, we are reminded of what our past experiences have done for us.

my favorite walkway in Cambridge

Similarly, after receiving countless updates about the severity of coronavirus, and its potential impact on my study abroad experience, I envisioned myself leaving behind the quaint, cobblestone streets of Cambridge, and returning to the States mid-winter. This prospect was scary and frustrating, but I felt an appreciation for Cambridge and this experience as a whole, that I had not foreseen. In fact, my semester abroad has been busy, and I have traveled throughout Europe in an attempt to see the world. But I have failed to take a moment to appreciate how at home I feel in Cambridge, and how much I have grown as a result of this experience.

the beautifully sunny and green colors of Cambridge

After weeks of living in Cambridge, I have certain cafes which I frequent nearly every day, favorite bakeries, and even certain walkways which I find so much beauty in. I have grown to love Cambridge even more than I believed possible, and the prospect of leaving so soon has encouraged me to reflect on my time here. The truth is, I have been so busy jetting around Europe, completing homework assignments and running to class, I have entirely neglected to reflect on my time here. I have finally settled in to my life here in Cambridge, and I believe I am a more independent, adventurous student as a result. Yet, this experience has been far more meaningful than I have realized. As a result of studying abroad, I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I feel much more relaxed here, and I have found time throughout my day to cook for myself, or enjoy a walk throughout town. In fact, I have discovered how to adopt a  more relaxed lifestyle since arriving in England, and I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up yet.

Chelsea Bun from my favorite cafe in Cambridge

It is not definite that we will be sent home before the end of our program. We are at the mercy of this virus, and are collectively hoping it does not continue to spread at such a fast rate. However, this experience has helped me to slow down, and reflect on my time as a study abroad student. In some ways, I am grateful to have been shown how much this experience has impacted me. I am grateful that I have realized my full appreciation for my study abroad program. In the meantime, I intend to further enjoy Cambridge, and enjoy every day that I get to study here.

A fun afternoon punting!

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.

“Studying” Abroad: Balancing School with Adventure

Author: Dakota Kampmeier

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

I’ll be the first to admit it: I was not planning on genuinely studying during my study abroad trip, and I was not shy about saying so. In my mind, study abroad was my one-way (okay, round-trip) ticket to finally live out my dream of seeing the world, traveling frivolously, and paying for it later. I did intend on going to class, but not that often, and I had absolutely no intent to get notably involved on my campus or make any serious commitments to clubs, committees, etc. My plan was to meet people from all corners of the globe and drag them along on weekend trips across Europe. My “plan” was to not have much of one at all, a task I’ve been challenged to accept since I got here.

view from my dorm room of Newton Hall

In high school, anyone would tell you that I was the person to go to if you needed something planned. Whether that be homecoming, junior prom, or a fundraiser, I was your go-to gal. When I got into college, I felt that the pull of wanting to plan everything was weighing me down, dragging me away from the spontaneity of my peers. A few months into school at Valpo I made a promise to myself: be more spontaneous. I vowed that I would ease myself into the free-spirited lifestyle of shrugging at a missed train and plans that fall through. So far, I’ve done a pretty good job at letting go of the need to be in control and always know what’s coming next. When traveling, this is a very valuable asset to have and it has already benefited me in just one month of being abroad. At the same time, I’ve let it get to my head a little bit too much.

Right now, every weekend in my planner is marked up in pencil with the names of cities I want to visit while I’m here. Prague, Lisbon, Cambridge, and Basel, just to name a few. Between the weekends, though, school assignments also emerge. I’ve found that if I want to return to the States well-traveled but also with a boosted GPA, I need to get my priorities in check. To be completely honest, traveling comes before school right now. I love my classes; small in size and not too taxing, they’re all very doable and, dare I say, easier than Christ College courses. I’m taking French again for the first time since high school and reading a novel a week for my intro to literature class. Truly, I love school and I love learning; I always have. However, I find it hard to sit in the library on a Saturday morning when I know I could be just a train ride away from the greatest adventure of my life.

So far, I’ve come to this conclusion: Monday-Thursday is dedicated to on-campus adventures, whether that be homework, making dinner with my unit mates, or catching an improv show with some friends. Friday-Sunday are my days to enjoy the “studying” portion of study abroad. I’m allotted five missed class periods for each of my courses, and I intend to use up all the ones for my Friday morning French class. My GPA will be important to me until the day I graduate, but at this time in my life, I recognize that there is a wealth of knowledge I cannot gain from inside the classroom. Keeping my grades up is vital for my success at Valpo, so I know that balance between schoolwork and traveling is a necessity.

The other day I realized, with a shock, that I have a mere twelve weeks left in Utrecht. There are so many places I want to go, so many I know I won’t get to this time around, and a handful that I must see before returning home. Right now, my grades are high, and I’m taking a low enough amount of credits to grant myself some free time to lay out preliminary plans for these trips. Studying abroad, like everything else, is a balancing act between work and play. Figuring it out on my own is daunting, of course, but also incredibly rewarding. I know that I’ll come home with a totally different worldview, full of knowledge I learned on and off school grounds.

A Weekend in Belgium

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Brussels & Bruges, Belgium

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

This weekend, a friend and I traveled to Belgium. It was a hastily planned, last minute trip, but I loved every second of it. I initially was unaware that there were trains traveling from London to Belgium. This train, also called the Eurostar, actually travels in a tunnel through the ocean, connecting England to Mainland Europe! Ever since I heard about this train, I was interested in taking it. So, a week ago, my friend Sabrina and I booked train tickets and headed to Belgium.

First, I would just like to preface this blog by saying that the Eurostar is an extremely easy and efficient way to travel. The security lines were short, the stations were clearly marked and the train was clean. However, when you travel under the ocean, it is pitch black. There are lights in the train of course, but you cannot actually see any of the ocean (which was honestly really disappointing). However, it still amazes me that we crossed the ocean between England and arrived in Belgium in exactly two hours time.

Upon arriving in Belgium, Sabrina and I stumbled upon a restaurant called Waffle Factory. Although it is a chain throughout Belgium, I maintain that this was the best waffle that I had while in Belgium (I tried a LOT of waffles). It was slightly crispy and sweet, but also fluffy. After trying some traditional Belgian food, we headed to our airbnb located near the Brussels Midi/Zuid station. It was definitely not the most picturesque location, and a couple of the locals gave us weird looks as we would walk through residential areas with our loud American accents. Regardless, the airbnb was only about 15 minutes from the city center.

A Belgian waffle with Nutella

The center of Brussels was so unbelievably cool. As you walk down the narrow, cobblestones streets of Brussels, the smell of chocolate wafts between stores. Regardless of how late or cold it is, there will always be people laughing and enjoying dinner on the patios of the restaurants. Brussels is busy and crowded, but the city itself is quaint and friendly.

The city center of Brussels!

Our second day in Belgium, we decided to travel to Bruges. We stumbled upon this town while planning our trip and instantly decided that we HAD to visit. Bruges is essentially a medieval fairytale town, with unique architecture and numerous shops. This was arguably my favorite part of the trip. While in Bruges, we admired the architecture and tried some of the chocolate shops.

Bruges, Belgium

We spent our final day in Brussels, exploring the city more and trying traditional Belgian food. We were both sad to leave, but surprised at how easy the travel had been.

A beautiful chocolate fountain in a chocolate shop in Brussels

I was initially worried about my first international trip as a Study Abroad student. But, I know that as the semester progresses, I will gain more experience with travel! I’m sure I will have the opportunity to travel to many more countries this semester and I look forward to sharing my future travel with you!

Traditional Belgian Meatballs!

For the Love of Protesting

Author: Ella Speckhard

Location: Paris, France

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

My homestay in Paris is situated in the 11th arrondissement of Paris on Blvd Voltaire. This is a lovely neighborhood with lots of great places to eat, shop, and observe the “real” Parisian life away from the tourist traps. My host’s apartment is just a short walk away from Place de la Nation, a monument commemorating the square with the most active guillotines during the Revolution, as well as the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in Paris, a beautiful place to walk, and contains the graves of such famous people as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Oscar Wild, Jim Morrison, and the fictional character of Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables. I’ve really enjoyed having easy access to these two spots; the cemetery is a lovely place to take a walk when things get overwhelming because there’s lots of trees and green space and it feels like a different world from the city that surrounds it. Living near Nation gives me access to a lot of different metro lines and makes getting around the city much simpler. However, what I didn’t know about this location is that it’s also central to the thing French people love most: protesting.

I receive regular emails informing me of different protests happening around the city so that I can try to avoid them. However, many of the protests pass right in front of my apartment so avoiding them is easier said than done. Luckily, I’m usually at school on the other side of the city when they take place so I’m not super inconvenienced, but I have witnessed a few and wanted to shine some light on what to expect from a protest in France.

The first protest I saw was one of the marches for the transportation strikes. It was early in the semester and I was interested to actually see something that I had heard so much about in my classes. I’ve never been to any marches or protests even in America, so I was a bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been though because it was basically just a boring parade with lots of signs. People came from all over France to participate so this was the largest protest I’ve seen so far, but I only caught the tail end of it, so I don’t have a great reference for how many people were marching. That evening during dinner my host turned on the news and we watched live footage of the protestors at their final destination, Place de la Bastille, and it was there that things got a little bit rowdy towards the end. We could hear the commotion in the distance, but luckily it didn’t affect our neighborhood at all. There were just a few fires from people burning their signs and people yelling at the police, but nothing violent or drastic.

The second protest I saw was a completely different story, and probably my most adrenaline-inducing experience abroad. It was a completely normal Tuesday afternoon and I was on my way home from classes, finally feeling confident in my routine. When I exited the station and went up the steps to the sidewalk, I could immediately sense that something was off. Cars were parked on the street so I couldn’t immediately tell what was happening, but I could see the sirens on top of police vehicles to my left. All I had to do was cross the street and walk for 20 feet and I would be home, but if I had been 30 seconds later getting off of the metro, I would’ve had to go somewhere else for the evening. I wasn’t sure if I should cross the street or not and hesitated for just a moment before the woman next to me decided to cross, so I followed her. When I stepped out into the street was when I saw a wall of police running my way, carrying their shields and batons. I jogged the rest of the way across the street to get out of their way and as I walked away from the commotion towards my apartment, I couldn’t help but turn around to see what was going on. People were stopped on the sidewalks watching, and as more and more police ran past, I truly felt like I was living out a movie scene. It was with the first blast of the tear gas cannon (I’m not really sure what the technical term for that is, but it felt like a cannon the way it shook the ground) that I snapped out of it and ran inside. Once I was inside, I felt comfortable watching things develop from the balcony, but only managed to get a few short videos because the tear gas was actually making my eyes itch even from 6 stories up. I was able to figure out that this wasn’t a transportation protest, but a protest of firefighters.

 

Although the video makes it seem pretty scary (and it was, I’ll be honest), I felt really lucky a few days afterward when I saw an article on social media about the other protests that the firefighters in Paris had done that week.

They stayed out on the street for about half an hour, and then the blasts I was hearing grew further and further away as the protest moved toward Place de la Nation down the street.

A video I took as things were breaking up and moving elsewhere

Finally, the most recent protest I’ve witnessed was extremely small, but loud. The group of marchers were led by a van with many speakers and a man yelling into his microphone about their cause. I’m not sure what they were protesting, but it’s amazing to think just how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to these types of events. I’ve only seen three in person, but they’re so deeply engrained into everyday life in France, and particularly Paris, that I didn’t even think twice when I heard the commotion on the street.

Video

Hopefully I don’t run into any more protests where my safety is in question because that was a pretty intense experience, but I feel confident that I know the signs of a protest turned hostile and would be able to just turn in the opposite direction and find something to do until things settled down enough for me to go home. Inconvenient? Yes. But the French love their protests and so learning how to live with them is essential, especially where I’m living. Remember, priority number one when studying abroad is safety! Research where you’re staying before you arrive so that you’re able to prepare for the different facets of your neighborhood, for instance, the presence of a bunch of protests right in front of your apartment!

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