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Flights, Food, and Family: First Impressions of Costa Rica

by Emma Petersen
My First Impressions of Costa Rica as a Student Studying Abroad | AIFS Study Abroad | AIFS in San José, Costa Rica

The moment I realized the girl beside me on the plane didn’t speak any English was the moment I realized how dramatic the shift this study abroad have on me. Through one simple interchange—she asked me where the headphone plug was, and I didn’t understand until she motioned towards her headphones, and I responded with a point—I realized that I would be a foreigner and a minority in an area with an alien language to me for the first time.

You may regret the decision to do a study abroad—for moments; mere moments compared to the wholistic experience of months in a different culture. I regretted my decision the whole plane ride before I even entered Costa Rica. Arriving, I got my luggage and went through customs—a long line—then felt relief to find the amazing AIFS staff waiting for me in a mass of talkative people. We waited for other students to arrive, then took a van to our home stays. One by one, we were dropped off in a dark and ominous new home.

Her house is so large, but the entrance looks humble. A garage guarded by a gate leads into the living room, kitchen, and seven rooms. All the walls are filled with paintings, and my eyes were filled with color. Costa Rica is a rainbow of infinite color.

Many people speak English here, but there is a language barrier. My host mom is INCREDIBLY kind; although, she only speaks Spanish. I had never taken a Spanish class before. Thankfully, her son was there to translate for the tour.

The first thing she offered me was coffee! For a writer, it is generally the best offer, but I don’t like—well, actually, I hate—coffee. As everyone is, she was shocked. After I said “no, gracias”—one of the only Spanish words I knew—she offered me an abundance of other foods and drinks. We talked for a bit, then I unpacked and went to an unfamiliar bed. Despite their kindness and my amazement with this new country, I was tired. I was scared. That’s ok!

The next morning, I was greeted by an enormous breakfast of eggs, various fruits, bread, rice, beans, etc. I could not eat even half of the food I was presented, and my mama Tica still makes fun of the small amount of food I eat. We went to orientation with AIFS , which was all in English. At times it was repetitive, but very good information. For instance, I learned that Ticans will often refer to people by the color of their skin.

In other words, Ticans are quite focused on race by American standards. However, when they call white people “gringos” or call people with thin eyes “chinos,” it’s part of their culture and is understood that it’s meant in an endearing way. They recognize stereotypes and don’t find them offensive. Instead of cowering away from noticing people’s physical features, they laugh at the stereotypical associations by calling them out directly.

Another important thing to note is that San José is a metropolitan area. Just as in any American city, you should not flaunt money or phones. Pick-pocketing is common here.

Bring both pants and shorts. Costa Rica is hot, but you want to be safe when in certain areas of San José by showing less skin as a girl because Latino men often don’t take no for an answer in dangerous areas. This is what I was told, but I have not had any problems or heard of any problems yet.

Be courageous. Even if you think a certain person doesn’t like you, introduce yourself and overtime continually make comments about the circumstances around you. They’ll loosen up, or other people will hear your comments and reply back. Ask questions. Observe. Be respectful of others and the new culture.

It was easy to make friends thanks to AIFS because we were all open to learning about one another and this new culture.

Most of all, pura vida. Life is fresh as long as you take stock of your past while continually noticing and learning about your surroundings.

  • First week vocabulary:
    • pura vida: “fresh life” or live freely
    • buenas: hello/ good day
    • encantata/mucho gusto: nice to meet you
    • dondé está…: where is…
    • many, many more

This post was contributed by Emma Petersen, who is spending her fall semester studying abroad with AIFS in San José, Costa Rica.

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