Blogs from week 2 in Costa Rica

IMG_3323Our hotel in Monteverde gave us our best view of Costa Rica’s diverse natural beauty so far. The mountain’s slope dropped rapidly beneath the last building allowing us to look down the entirety of the valley. The first time I looked out on this view I was amazed by the blue color of the clouds hovering amongst the lower peaks. I thought it was interesting how the last light was rolling across the clouds much like it dances on water. At this point I realized that what I was staring at were not clouds but Puntarenas, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The following day as we hiked through Monteverde’s cloud forest reserve and zip lined through the jungle I could not help but to be amazed by the diversity of the area. Being surrounded by jungle yet still able to see the ocean was something that I had never had the chance to experience before. The beauty surrounding us in every direction was breathtaking and unlike any other place. Yet, the diversity of Monteverde is similar to the diversity of Costa Rica as whole. No matter where I have found myself in this country, I have been blown away by the range of difference that I have seen. This has been true in not just the nation’s natural beauty. In San Jose, for example, life follows its own rules. A quality sushi bar can be found right next to a Soda, a restaurant serving traditional dishes. Clothing style ranges from business to beach wear, even in the concrete jungle. Having been surrounded by this physical and social diversity for the past two weeks I can confidently say that Costa Rica’s diversity is what makes it unique and beautiful. We, the Gap Pack, often talk amongst ourselves about how quickly our time here is disappearing. I know that I will spend every minute of our next three and a half weeks taking in this culture that I know I will never find in another place.

“Go ahead! Only brake at the end.” I look out at the other platform that looks very tiny from this distance, and my heart skips a beat in more excitement than fear. I make sure that my hands are in the ideal place for braking, double check that my GoPro is on, and lift my legs off the platform. Gravity immediately trumps static friction as the sturdy pulley and I begin to roll down the steel zipline and towards the tiny platform in the distance. I can’t help but grin as the wind fills my ears and I burst through the small hole in the canopy and into the wide open valley pass. Still grinning, I apply a bit of cleverly placed force to the wire zooming by overhead with my stiff leather glove, feeling quite satisfied as I get the intended result of a slight rotation to the left. The beautiful landscape on Monteverde is splayed out in front of me, and I take it in for a handful of seconds. Hummingbirds flit about in the trees below me. A lush jungle of trees sprawl across the landscape, disguising the nearby city with a partial green veil. As far away as I dare to look, a grey cloud peacefully spills up and over a mountain ridge. My speed having increased significantly during this gawking, I turn myself back to facing forward and find that the once-tiny platform is markedly larger and growing rapidly. I see the guide casually motioning at me to slow down, so I pull the whizzing cable with the sturdy glove. I begin slowing, but not quickly enough. I pull harder, and the leather makes an unpleasant noise in response to the increased abrasive force from the wire. Still too fast. I put my other hand on top of my first and hoist myself, amusedly noting that there in now more weight on the gloves than the pulley. I slow down much faster, just in time to catch the platform at a reasonable velocity. I grin into the GoPro and turn it off for now. 14 more ziplines to go!

In Montverde we did a lot of fun activities but one of them stands out more than the others and that is zip lining. The experience of having the warm sun hitting your neck while cold wind and rain is hitting you in the face is amazing. It gave me a feeling of flying like a bird surrounded by miles of forested land. The view while zip lining down was incredible, a dense green forest with giant trees and a variety of vines and flowers could be seen. My favorite part was going down one of the longest lines as I saw a falcon flying not 500 feet from where I was. Also the experience of having done such a cool activity that I always dreamt of doing in a majestic place like Costa Rica made the experience so much better.

There I was 200 feet above the ground in a tree. We were on a zip lining tour in Monteverde and I was extremely nervous. Falling is my biggest fear, so although we were securely hooked onto the tree I still clung to it for dear life. Uncontrollably shaking each time I had to step away from the trunk to get hooked to the zip line while on the edge of the platform. I had managed to make it down several lines when the real challenge came. A repel straight down, and then a climb up a rope ladder all the way back up. At first I simply laughed at this and refused. There was absolutely no was that I would be going straight down without passing out. I can barely climb up a 10 foot sturdy ladder without feeling weak in the knees, so how could I make my way up a 200 foot rope one. But then I came to a realization, I didn’t come all the way to Costa Rica to back down. This experience has been about getting out of your comfort zone, I was not about to stop that now. I knew that if I forced myself to get to the ground I would have to climb up. So I strapped in and refused to look down as they hoisted me to the ground. When I landed on the bottom I finally looked up. I couldn’t believe that I had just done that! It was so awesome until I came to the dire realization that I had to get back up… I knew if I watched other people climb up the ladder it would just make me more scared. So I decided to be the second climber and follow another student’s every move. “Whatever you do, don’t look down” she warned me. Halfway up I started to freeze. I couldn’t quit now though, so I started to sing to myself to ease my nerves. Reciting Beatles songs like a broken record I advanced rung by rung. Funny how the last 10 steps were the scariest. With nothing but the music on my mind I hurtled myself onto the platform. I was frozen by the fear and speechless of what I had just accomplished. Now it was time to look down at what I had done. I could not believe my eyes, how did I just do that. Facing my fear was so worth it. I felt invincible. Not only could I now say that I have done that, but now I am inspired take on more challenges. My new favorite saying is “Do one thing every day that scares you” and I will now try to live by these words for the rest of my life.

DSCF2375About halfway through the group’s zip lining trip, our guides announced that we had the opportunity to do a little bit of rappelling. The responses to this varied, but I was very excited and a little bit nervous. Our guide explained what the various options were for the descent. We could rappel ourselves down or we could let the guide on the ground do it for us. I decided to control my own descent. I was quite nervous by the prospect of being let down from a large jungle tree by a rope that I was in command of, but I knew I definitely didn’t want to make (or let) the person on the ground do it. I wanted the experience. Eventually, it came to my turn in line. I waited as the rope passed through various fancy contraptions to increase the friction. The time came, and I nervously backed off the platform with my grip tight on the rope. I didn’t go anywhere. I coaxed myself into loosening my grip, and after a few scares, settled into a nice slow descent pace. The trip down was relatively uneventful, but the way back up was simply stunning. We got to climb up a rope ladder through the inside of a hollow tree! I’m something of an avid tree climber back home, but now I’m proud to say that I have climbed the trickiest side of the tree- the inside.

The time has flown by quicker than I had anticipated. We are already into our third week here and have done so much. This past weekend, was our first of many weekend trips, we went to Monteverde. In one weekend we explored numerous restaurants, toured a cloud forest, zip-lined, and got try Costa Rica’s delicious coffee and chocolate. Everyone was super anxious for zip-lining and the heights, and it was an absolute blast. As we zoomed through the sky on multiple lines we saw great views, including the cloud forest from above. Half way through the course we got to repel down to the ground then climb back up through a tree to the next zip line. After repelling, were the longer, faster zip-lines. The second to last line we went down was half a mile long and hands down my favorite line due to the speed and awesome view. Since I was the first to end the course I got to watch the other students soar above me on the longer lines. It was an awesome experience and great way to see the country’s beauty. Anyone visiting Costa Rica must go to Monteverde and try all the awesome activities available.

In the past couple of weeks here, we have been busy with a variety of fulfilling activities! For the first time in our Gap Semester, we are attending classes in a traditional setting… however I wouldn’t even go that far because our Spanish class meets outside under roofed classrooms and our culture class consists of some type of excursion every week. The Gap Group is very lucky to have Manuel Montesel as our Culture and History of Costa Rica teacher. Manuel is a well-known musician in Costa Rica and plays Calypso music, which is found on the Caribbean side and in particular, Cahuita.   Humble and soft spoken in nature, Manuel has not only begun to teach us the rich and deep knowledge of Costa Rica but has opened our classroom as a place for discussion and contradictions. I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Manuel especially on our trip to Guayabo National Monument and I look forward to our group trip to Cahuita next weekend! After hearing stories and completing readings about Cahuita and Calypso music, I cannot wait to have one of the most well-known men in that field be our personal guide! If the Gap Semester Program hasn’t sounded enough like experiential learning to you yet, I think that our weeks in Costa Rica define the Elon Experience.

Although I have been taking Spanish for many years, I am not that confident in my skills. I assume I am getting better at comprehending and speaking because I am practicing Spanish every day; however, I didn’t know if I truly am improving or not. I could not answer this question until today when we visited the Legislative Assembly. When we arrived, our guide told us that he would speak Spanish (very slowly) so that we could get more practice with listening. This worried me for two reasons. One, the people who have never studied Spanish until this semester would be completely lost and two, my Spanish vocabulary is not extensive so even though I have been taking Spanish for quite some time now, I wouldn’t know what he was saying 95% of the time. I told myself I would try my best to understand what he was saying, but I knew that if that failed, one of our teachers could translate for us. As our guide started speaking, I focused on each word he was saying. After he was done and what he said was translated, to my surprise, I realized that I actually understood our guide correctly. For me it was a feel-good moment. I realized that I am improving in my Spanish skills. The best part was that I had this feeling multiple times during our visit to the assembly. Our trip to the Legislative Assembly was one of my favorites because I was able to learn so much about the political process in Costa Rica. It also made me realize that all the work I am putting into 1) trying to speak with my host family and 2) learning in our Spanish class is really paying off.

IMG_3350Today we went to the Legislative Assembly, and I found out our government and the Costa Rican government are very similar. We had a tour guide take us around the beautiful legislative building and to their chamber of congress. There are some funny things that happen though within their congress. One thing is that everything that is said and gestured during their meetings is recorded, so they are often afraid of what they say. Our tour guide told us that more agreements happen in the coffee room attached to the congress’ room than in the actual room itself due to the lack of microphones and cameras. It is also unlike our American system because the amount that they make is $7000.00 a month. We also learned about how the president gets elected and how only 60% of the eligible voters end up voting the other 40% don’t vote, possibly out of protest. I am glad that we were able to take the day and get a great explanation about Costa Rican government.

When I first arrived in Costa Rica my Spanish skills were far from perfect, in fact they were far from being apparent at all. I couldn’t recall much of the vocabulary I once learned or the questions I used to know how to ask. As the week progressed and I struggled to express my daily activities and feelings my Spanish improved and I started to remember all that I had once learned. From being fully immersed in Costa Rican culture and a Spanish speaking country my second language was quickly recovered. I was surprised at how fast my skills had improved and was amazed at how naturally Spanish started to come to me as I was speaking. This self-realization of how my skills had enhanced was later solidified when my host family complimented me on my improvement. I left the dinner table that night with an incredible feeling of accomplishment and then realized that there is no better way to perfect your skills then in a full immersion program. When you are forced to speak a foreign language because no one else around you knows any other language you adapt quickly and significantly improve your skills. I am incredibly happy that I had an opportunity to be involved in this study abroad program so that I can fully use my Spanish speaking abilities in day-to-day conversation to increase my foreign language into all that it can become.

Today while walking down the aisle of the supermarket I stopped to look at the cookies brands they had and started to talk to a guy that was also looking at the cookies. We talked for about 5 minutes in Spanish and then both went our separate ways . Only when I got to my house did I realize how much this impacted me. Three weeks ago if I had been in the same situation I would’ve just said “no hablo Español” but after only a short amount of time living in Costa Rica I am finally able to have a full conversation with a Costa Rican resident. This realization made me so happy that I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night as I had just achieved my biggest goal for this part of the gap program: to be able to maintain a conversation with someone in Spanish while understanding everything they said. This seemed like such a huge goal when I first got here but now I feel like I can go beyond this and shoot for another larger goal during my time in Costa Rica.

Today was my host sister’s birthday! I wasn’t sure how people celebrated their birthdays in Costa Rica, but I assumed that she would have a few friends over or we would go out to dinner. I was very wrong. When I came home, there was probably about 15-20 of my host family’s relatives in the living room. At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was introduced to everyone but they all said their name very quickly so I couldn’t remember them and so I wasn’t sure who to talk to. After a while of sitting at the table awkwardly, my host sister’s grandfather offered me a piece of cake and struck up conversation. My Spanish isn’t the best, but he talked slowly and I understood most of what he was saying. He was very sweet and after our conversation he called my host mom over and said that I should come over for coffee sometime because I was very nice. After that, I felt much more comfortable. People were playing bingo, singing karaoke, and playing games and I joined in on the festivities by playing jacks with the kids. I loved being welcomed with open arms for the birthday celebration as if I was a true member of the family. We all had a great time celebrating my sister’s birthday and I am so glad to be having a one of a kind experience like this!

IMG_3077Living with a host family is a lot more difficult than I expected it to be. I have had some friends live with host families before, so I thought I knew what to expect, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. There are many difficult things about living with a completely new family in a foreign country. First, there’s the language barrier. I took Spanish in high school, yet seem to be struggling to remember what I learned. This is difficult for the conversations that need to happen on a daily basis. My host mom doesn’t speak any English, so when neither one of us know what the other is trying to say, we have a bit of a problem. Second, I am a very friendly person and want to spend a lot of time with my family and get to know them, however I don’t want to interrupt their daily schedule or be in the way. So far, I feel as though I am doing a good job trying to balance this. And lastly, living with a new family makes me realize that when we get to campus in January, we will finally be on our own. We won’t have breakfast waiting for us in the morning, someone to drive us to class when it’s raining, or someone to do our dishes. Even though I just met my family two weeks ago, I deeply appreciate someone doing these small things for me still. I know that I will cherish the next month of living in Costa Rica for a lot of reasons, and I hope to break down some of these barriers and make the most of my experience.

Buenos Dias! This is the first thing I hear every morning from my host parents. I spring out of bed and grab my towel and a change of freshly ironed clothes. I take a quick shower and then sit down and eat breakfast with my family. My breakfast consists of a big loaf of bread, pineapples, and hot royal blend tea. After breakfast I say my farewells to my family and meet two other students outside my drive way. We pass by a park and often see a homeless man everyday named Gerard. He’s a really nice guy. There are a lot of local shops around the park area that we pass, such as the local bread store called a “panaderia”. They always have something hot and ready to eat if we are looking for a quick snack throughout the day. We then pass by a church and turn left onto the main road of San Pedro. It’s basically a straight shot from there on the sidewalk. There is a lot of traffic in the morning. It’s very loud and there are a lot of vendors on the side of the street selling fruits and vegetables. There are also two car dealerships that we pass every morning. One of them sells high end cars such as BMW, Range Rovers, and Mercedes, while the other one is a brand that does not exist in the U.S. but is commonly seen here. Eventually, we arrive at a bank around the end of the main road. We take a right and then another right immediately passing a local bus stop to get to the Center. This is my normal routine during weekdays.

An average morning in Costa Rica for me all begins when I wake up at 7:00 am every morning to the amazing smells of my host mom’s cooking. My alarm is set for 7:30 so waking up before my alarm is one of the greatest mysteries of my life at the moment. I roll out of bed, put on some clothes, and am greeted by a smile and “Cómo Amaneció?” which essentially is asking how you are that morning. I let her know and then sit down at the table where breakfast and coffee is waiting. I know I’m spoiled. A couple of minutes into eating with my host mom and dad, we hear a little voice say “holaaaaaa! Holaaaa……..lorita!!!!” with a laugh, my host mom gets up and takes the blanket from our parrots’ cage. Depending on how the parrot, Lorita, is feeling that morning, she will then begin to sing, talk, cry, or turn her back to us and act all mad until she is fed her bread dipped in coffee. She is our entertainment every morning, always surprising us with new singing or funny actions. In return for her entertainment, we clap for her as she screams in delight. It is a truly hilarious and fun way to begin the day. Once I’m finished eating, I will take a quick shower. The showers here are interesting because they don’t have a hot or cold option. We “control” how hot the water is by letting out more or less water since it is heated in the shower head itself. I put control in quotation marks because sometimes the water will never get hot and those mornings are not my favorite. Finally, I get changed and reorganize my room a little bit in the minutes I have left before my daily 8:30 meeting with the students I live near at my street corner, and then head off to the day. I couldn’t ask for a better way to start my mornings.

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