Last blogs from Costa Rica & the 2014 Elon Gap Semester

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Costa Rica is a true testament to the saying “time flies when you’re having fun”. As each day goes by I realize that I need to be appreciating the little things more so than I have been. For example, I have really enjoyed eating dinner with my host family, but these past few days I’ve made it a priority to have dinner with them. If some people from the group offer an invitation to me to go out I say no because I want to spend as much time with my host family as possible. Along with this, around 6 o’clock every night my host mom asks if I want to eat now or later with Marypaz (my host sister). I think for two seconds and always answer with “yo puedo esperar hasta que llegue Marypaz en casa” which means “I can wait until Marypaz comes home.” Whether it’s in the United States or in Costa Rica, I’ve always enjoyed company while eating, and I especially enjoy the company of my host family. I find that we have great conversations every night and we always end up laughing. Even if we sit at the dinner table in silence, which rarely happens, I know that they appreciate me just being with them. In these next few days instead of thinking about leaving, I am going to cherish the last few dinners I have with them.

Today, we visited an after school program that gives kids activities to do while their parents are still at work. As soon as we got off the bus, kids came rushing towards us, all fleeing to someone different. A couple of girls came over to me and we started talking about what they wanted to do. They decided we should all draw together! So, we got out the paper and colored pencils and set to work. We all asked each other questions about our family, what we liked to do, what we were drawing, etc. While we were working on our pictures, the Elon students were talking together as well. It wasn’t until the end of the day when I realized that we had all been talking in Spanish pretty much the entire time, despite the occasional, ¿Cómo se dice … en Español? It was so cool to sit back and realize how far in our Spanish skills we had all come. In the beginning, regardless of Spanish skill level, we were all very nervous. Now, Spanish comes naturally and even though we still make mistakes and have to ask questions, we are much more confident with ourselves and I feel proud to look back and see how far we have come. 

I could hardly wait for Thursday, November 20th to arrive. A day I had been eagerly awaiting for a year was finally going to come this week. Initially, I was nervous to be in Costa Rica on this day, fearing that I would not be able to celebrate it as I have for the past two years with my younger sister. I was skeptical if my classmates would share my excitement. Yet, all of these worries were unnecessary because el Sinsajo vive en Costa Rica. On Monday, a few of us allied together and ventured to the arena of the Multiplaza to purchase tickets to Mockingjay, el Sinsajo en Español, Part One. The tickets printed looking incredibly similar to a name tag in the reaping bowl. The next few days proved to be a challenge, as we had to hungrily wait for Thursday. When it finally dawned, we found ourselves in the midst of a day filled with four toned whistles and three fingers pressed to lips and raised into the air. The Gap Pack, like a powerful alliance of Career Tributes, took the movie theater by storm. Two hours later we emerged from the theater as victors in the sense of seeing the next installation in the Hunger Games series before most individuals in the United States. We vigorously discussed the film and its parallels to the book. As the conversation died down we all left the Multiplaza knowing that in order to survive until November 20th, 2015 the odds must be forever in our favor.

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Today we didn’t have any classes (woohoo!) because we were visiting some historical sites. We went to the National Theater of Costa Rica as well as the Gold Museum. After that, we had a couple of options. A couple of us really wanted to go to the Artisans Market that we had visited previously. So, our program director at ICADS gave us directions to go there. I was a little nervous starting out because it was raining and we didn’t have a fluent Spanish speaker with us, but I knew we could do it. I kept reciting the directions in my head, “up 3 streets and then it’s on the right.” Sure enough, there it was! We did our shopping and then hopped on a bus and headed back to ICADS. While we were sitting on the bus, I couldn’t help but think about how there was no way I would have been comfortable doing this five weeks ago. This has been an amazing growing experience for me, and I can’t wait to come back to Costa Rica.

Stairs on stairs on stairs, as a few others and myself make our way down to see the La Fortuna waterfall this past weekend in Arenal. The only thought going through my mind was how painful it was going to be walking back up the many, many stairs we were walking down. All of those steps were totally worth it though, as we arrived at the beautiful near 200-foot waterfall. We could only walk to about knee-deep when the powerful water falling into the blue pool below would blast us. It was fun to see who could try and get the closest before being pushed back by the force of water. Then the water continued down a rocky stream, filled with people swimming. The waterfall was just another example of Costa Rica’s amazing natural beauty. It was a very enjoyable, relaxing weekend and to my pleasant surprise the walk back up the steps was not even that bad.  

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Arenal Volcano was one of the most relaxing and beautiful places I have ever been. With pools heated by the volcano to high yet comfortable temperatures and slides that send you flying into the pool, my eyes almost flew out of my head when we arrived. We were at a resort. It was so beautiful with the huge volcano constantly looming over us, its top always concealed by dark, mysterious clouds. I had no idea we were going to be in a place like this. My favorite part had to have been the slides though. There were multiple slides all around the park of different lengths, speeds, and curves. The biggest was a 20 second ride through mini man-made waterfalls and dark tubes that would end with you flying out about 2 feet over the water at ridiculous speeds. This one was done the most and with almost no line, we could do it as many times a day as we wished. Even the Elon Staff did this one, remaining calmer than most of the 18 year olds on the trip as he would cannonball and wave on his way out while we would be hurled into the water like helpless children. Another of the coolest parts was the crocodile enclosure. There were about 4 crocodiles of varying sizes (the biggest being at least 14 feet long) and they were always in plain sight and close to the fence for pictures and amazement. Right next to that was a butterfly enclosure where you could sit down and relax watching hundreds of butterflies and caterpillars hang out and do their thing. The volcano Arenal was one of my top 3 locations thus far and would absolutely recommend it to anybody considering traveling to Costa Rica!

At the Los Lagos hotel in Arenal I was in the middle of getting a relaxing message when I heard a load roar. I looked up and out of the doorway and saw three howler monkeys in the trees in front of me. I had never heard a howler monkey before and wow, were they loud. The lady giving the massage also jumped back because the sheer ear piercing sound of the howl. Though annoying I got off the table and walked over to get a closer look and they were much smaller than I thought they would be. They looked to be about the same size as my 13lb cockapoo back home. I got some great pictures of them and cannot wait to get them developed and show my family. I can’t think of anywhere else that I’ve stayed that is so close to nature.

It’s a beautiful day and the sun is out. There aren’t any plans today in Arenal that are going to affect my choice to hangout and relax. Do I want to hang out in the hot springs or take an adventure down the longest slide? I’m feeling adventurous, so my first choice was the slide. I walked up 48 1/2 steps to the top of the slide. My heart was racing! I was literally staring at what I thought at the time was instant death. The water looked like the Rapids we rafted on for hours and I’m about to just lay down in it and go. I approach the slide with my nerves going crazy. As I’m about to overcome my fear and enter the slide…BAM!! Someone shoves me down the slide! As I’m going down, water is hitting me in the face and going up my nose. As I’m trying to catch my breath, I drop into a pitch-black tunnel and right when I see the end of the tunnel, there’s a sharp turn and I brace for the landing. That was the most exhilarating water slide of my life- I want to go again!! What a fun weekend relaxing in Arenal. I can’t wait to continue my Costa Rican adventure next week in Manuel Antonio, Pura Vida!

Today I woke up, put on my baiting-suit, and walked 30 steps out my door and went down one of the coolest waterslides I’ve ever been on. This weekend we are staying in Arenal, which is a town, built right on the side of a Volcano. Our hotel, which I would definitely love go back too, had at least 5 different pools one hotter than the next. The best part of the hot spring pools was that they were heated from the volcano. The restaurant at the hotel was delicious and all the time spent lying out in the sun was well needed. The hotel had everything from Horseback riding to a crocodile pit. The tilapia they served in the restaurant was from their own private tilapia farm. The name of the hotel was Los Lagos and to anyone thinking about going to Costa Rica, this is a must stay hotel. I can honestly say this was the best weekend I have had so far on my Gap Semester.

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The lights alternated between colors underneath the water, making the whole pool glow. During the day, the hot springs were almost uncomfortable but at night, it was the perfect temperature. I felt all my stress dissolve away as my muscles unwound in the warm water. We laughed and talked, warm smiles combining with the warm water. Once the pool closed at ten, some of us went to one of the girls’ rooms to watch television. We sprawled together on the beds and watched the Costa Rican version of Cinderella, reliving childhood memories of watching it in English. Everyone gets homesick sometimes, every friend fights at one point or another, life is full of challenges and bumps in the road. But in moments like this? Joy was found in swimming pools and colorful lights and comfortable beds and television. We remember that what actually matters is enjoying the people around us and taking advantage of this amazing experience.

This entire semester we have constantly been on the go, whether it is hiking a mountain, going to a service site, or exploring a new country. So, when told that I had a weekend to relax at a resort with no activities planned, I was in shock. How do I sit still for a whole 24 hours? Well it is actually quite easy. Waterslides, hot springs, and a restaurant by the pool can all keep someone very entertained for a weekend. The best part of the weekend was most definitely watching people come flying out of a high-speed waterslide. I would be lying if I did not say I was not nervous to go down at first, but I am glad I did it. As the weekend went on people got more and more creative with ways of going down the slide, not all good ideas, but still creative. With every exciting, fun packed weekend we have, it is getting harder to not want to leave Costa Rica.

As the old saying goes “all good things must come to an end”. As we called the new applicants for the 2015 Gap Semester I was filled with overwhelming joy and excitement at first. I was thrilled for each of them to have the opportunity in which I experienced during my first semester of college. I remembered when last year’s students had called me and when I boarded my flight to Denver not knowing any of the fourteen other faces I would see as I got off the plane to spend the rest of my semester with. I recalled all of the amazing moments the 2014 participants shared as we traveled across the country and as we traveled abroad. Heck, I even missed the van life a little bit. As we called the new crew for next year I flashbacked to everything I loved about the last four months of my life and my first semester of college. I then came to the realization that this was our last week together and that it was our last week of this amazing experience we have been on. My excitement had turned into remembrance and a bit of jealousy. I want to continue on with the Gap Program, but I know that it’s time to move on to greater things. I hope that next year’s participants have the time of their life and learn as many wonderful, moving, inspiring, things as I did. I hope they cherish every moment because it truly does go faster than you ever thought it would. In the end, I am overjoyed for the new participants although I would love to join them and re-experience this fantastic gap program.

My plans for the day include visiting the Parque Nacional of Manuel Antonio. As Gap Semester comes to an end we get to spend our last few days enjoying the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio. It seems like all of our hard work, blood, sweat and tears were finally paying off. This moment is what I have been waiting for since the day we got off NOLS. When we entered the park we had about a ten minute walk to the beach. The walk included multiple sight-seeing opportunities for animal and bird lovers of all kinds. One minute you can be staring at the monkeys that are plotting to steal your food while at the same time others are slowly following the footsteps of the sloth. Once our sight-seeing seems like it’s coming to an end. BAM! The beautiful picturesque moment we have all been waiting for appears right before our eyes. The water is crystal blue with forests close to the shore line on opposite sides of one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. Anxious and nervous about what this day could bring I take my first step onto the beach. My body freezes. Not because of the frigid environment Costa Rica has year round but because I become enraptured by the scenery that is presented in front of me that very second. My toes crinkle in the sand. I let the sun’s rays beat onto my body. This is how I pictured heaven. Pura Vida!

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Manuel Antonio was yet another one of our beautiful weekend vacation spots. A beach on the pacific coast of Costa Rica, I couldn’t believe where we were staying. The hotel itself was absolutely incredible with direct access onto the beach and a pool and restaurant in front of the rooms. In Manuel Antonio, among relaxing on the beach or swimming with the waves, we had the opportunity to do a sunset tour on a Catamaran where we would go chasing dolphins, visit surreal rock islands full of birds, and then go snorkeling next to a volcanic rock pile offshore. When we found the dolphins, it was crazy to see them swimming directly in front of the boat! I had never seen dolphins up close and was impressed by how fast they could swim! The snorkeling was incredible and we were able to see hundreds of colorful fish traveling in schools and feeding off of growths on the side of the volcanic rock. Also, during this stop we had the opportunity to go on slides on the back of the boat and jump off from the top. After the snorkeling and swimming, we were fed filets of Wahoo with rice and vegetables. It was a great way to end the tour and extraordinarily fun. Other than that, spending time with everyone during thanksgiving dinner and just overall being able to decide what activities we wanted to do and have such a great time with everyone doing them on our last weekend together was unforgettable. I will miss this place dearly.

It seems like just yesterday I arrived here in Costa Rica and now I’m just a week away from ending this life changing experience. I’ve learned so many things about myself while living with a different family. Of course there have been some ups and downs during my stay here like struggling to understand what my parents were saying to me because of the language barrier. But, from this experience I got to hang out with an awesome host dad every day and I hope to keep in touch with him. This experience has taught me that even the hardest hellos turn into memorable goodbyes. I know there’s still a week left, but I can truly say I loved getting to know them. From this experience I’ll be able to take away stronger adversity skills when faced with uncertainty and being uncomfortable. I’ve learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and I learned to like it as well.

Now that all of our work for ICADS is over, it’s beginning to hit me that we have less than one week left in this unbelievable place. Sure, we still have an awesome final weekend set up before we go that I am looking forward to, but how have we been here for 36 days already? So much has happened in such little time that I am sitting here, writing this, and having serious trouble comprehending it. It has reached the point that I found a quarter in the bottom of my backpack and I spent 10 minutes staring at it and holding it in my fingers, unbelievably confused at the size. Handling so many 100 colon coins here, I didn’t realize how comparatively small a quarter really was. I remembered it as something enormous. Holding it in my hand though, it was miniscule. I’m afraid to find a dime. It’s little things like this that make me wonder how it’s going to be getting accustomed to the United States again. Such a long time getting used to this country, I will miss my favorite tea drink I buy every time I’m at the supermarket. I will wonder where I can get a good casado (traditional plate here). I will most likely respond to my friends in Spanish for the first couple of days as well! I just wanted to write this to see if I could convey any of my feelings, my disbelief, on how this time could have passed so quickly. Think back to October 20 and wonder the same. Did this go by so quickly for you as well? Do I just notice how quickly time goes by since there is an end date and during life in the U.S. one doesn’t think about such things? I don’t know. I just can’t stop thinking about these questions. I will miss this place greatly.

Today was both an exciting and reflective day for me. At around 5:30pm, the Gap Pack gathered at ICADS and called early decision applicants, and welcomed them to the Elon Community and the Elon Gap Semester for 2015! As we cheered for each applicant as they picked up the phone, I could not help to reminisce how beyond excited I was to get the phone call inviting me to take part in the Elon Gap Semester Program. Ever since hearing about the Elon Gap Semester Program in the summer of 2013, I wanted to be part of such an amazing opportunity, so it was extremely fun to be on the other side of the phone call today and hearing similar reactions from new Gap members and knowing that they are in for an amazing first semester of college like I have had. It is unbelievable to think that it has already been a year since I was accepted into Elon, yet at the same time, the past three months have become a lifestyle for me and it’s hard to imagine what life after Gap is going to be like. As we wrap up the semester with our final week, I am determined to make the most of my time in Costa Rica with my other gap friends who despite only knowing for 15 weeks, have easily become my family and continue to reflect on how this experience has shaped me into the more mindful and culturally aware person I am today.

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Every year I have sat at a table on Thanksgiving surrounded by loved ones listening to the common sentiments of being thankful for friends, family, good health, etc. But this Thanksgiving I have so much more to be thankful for. After witnessing many of the dysfunctional families in the world, I can really appreciate what a strong support system my family is. Seeing the many horrible living conditions of so many in the U.S and Costa Rica alike, I can appreciate the bed I sleep in every night. From serving food to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, I will cherish every bite of my turkey and mashed potatoes. I am thankful for the night I was able to gaze upon a billion stars on NOLS. All of our sing-a-longs on the sometimes eight hour car rides from state to state. The day I was able to play with Raven, a little girl on Pine Ridge who brought so much hope to my heart. Those nights I walked to the top of the hill at REMEMBER and just listened to the wind. Feeling like a kid again climbing around in the City Museum in St. Louis. Harvesting vegetables and following the process all the way to distribution for people in need. Gaining so much valuable knowledge on the environmental issues and the coal industry in Kentucky. Changing my once ignorant perception about homeless people while in D.C after talking to many of them. Having the opportunity to study abroad as a first year. Facing my fears by ziplining through the trees. The day I ran into the warm Caribbean waters and forgot that it was almost December. And most importantly thriving more than I could have ever imagined. This has been the most influential four months of my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing. So yes, of course I am thankful for my wonderful family, friends old and new, and my good health, but now these words seem so much more true. It is easy to say how lucky one is, but to really understand it is priceless.

Just 4 months ago I met this group of strangers, and now, I am happy to call them my family. The Gap Pack has been on life changing adventures together. We have triumphed mountains, aided people in need while opening our eyes to our country’s problems, and survived the oh-so-frightening language barrier that Costa Rica presented us. Gap Pack is not a force to be reckoned with. I didn’t just learn about people who are different than me from the service weeks. I also learned this from everyone in this group. I think that this is one of the beauties of the Elon Gap Semester. I was forced to be with and work with people who are different than me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course there are some similarities between all of us, but the truth is, Gap has helped me form relationships with people who aren’t the same as I am, and for that, I am grateful. They have taught me so much about teamwork, understanding, patience and myself. Without this wonderful group I had with me this past semester, I wouldn’t have been able to survive as well as I did, laugh until I couldn’t breathe, and of course take epic selfies.

Tomorrow is the last day of our Gap Semester. I remember just a few months ago I was packing my bag to spend a whole semester with people I’ve never met before in my life. Now I am packing my bag with souvenirs and clothes that I’ve bought during my time in Costa Rica. As I finish my last item off my checklist (yes mom I have a checklist) I began to have this surreal moment of pride and accomplishment of what I have done over this semester. As I write this final blog I think back to all those hills I conquered during NOLS, all those people we helped during our service experience, and all those cultural stereotypes that were talked about and discussed in our Costa Rican culture class. These experiences made this semester challenging and uncomfortable at times but during those moments of uncertainty I grew as a person. I would do this over again in a heartbeat. I know that all of this will be coming to an end but I know that this isn’t just an end but a start to a new chapter of life. I’m happy to say that I took that leap of faith and put myself with a group of people I never knew. Now I consider all of these people to be my close friends. I believe that Gap Semester turned into not only an experience but an adventure of a lifetime. This is Gap Pack signing off for its last and final blog.

I had been looking forward to this semester for a long time and now I am writing this blog post on the last day. It is crazy to look back and see all that the Gap Pack has accomplished in just a few short months. We have hiked mountains, helped those in need across the country, and lived in Costa Rica. This entire experience has exceeded all expectations. Going into the semester I thought Gap would be a great experience to travel and do service work, which it is, but it is also so much more. I have learned a great deal about the world around me and myself in just a few months. I have learned about issues in my own country that I was completely blind to. I have learned about passions I did not even know I had, such as service work. I learned to go into every experience with an open mind, and in return the knowledge and friendships gained are for a lifetime. Though I am extremely sad that my first college semester is over, I cannot wait to start the next adventure on Elon’s campus.

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