The raw life-changing power that a one-way ticket has is something everybody should experience. For me, it led to what have now been two years abroad, a total career switch, and so many stories that my English teacher friend has already requested notes to start compiling my biography.
Here are ten reflections on the last two years in Costa Rica:
- I don’t need as much stuff as I think I do.
- Speaking Spanish set me up for success.
- If a relationship/friendship is to survive, it’s my responsibility.
- There’s something liberating about a culture that isn’t so litigious.
- My patience and ability to problem solve are a fortified castle at this point.
- The people I have spent time with here have etched a deep place in my heart.
- I will never overestimate the value of late summer nights.
- I have become a morning person, through and through.
- Studying or traveling abroad is not the same as living abroad.
- I f***ing love my laptop.
I really don’t, though, that’s the thing. I’ll be upfront and say that I’ve always been a bit of a penny pincher but for some reason, the last two years abroad have reinforced my thrifty habits. I simply don’t buy unnecessary shit anymore, especially not things like clothing or accessories. I’ve been wearing more or less the same shirts, shoes, and pants since I moved here and it has been liberating in a way. I own my [few] possessions, they don’t own me, which has actually made me take better care of them since they can all be compartmentalized so easily – give me a 70-liter pack and a small suitcase and I’ll give you damn near all of my belongings. So what if my entire wardrobe can be captured in one 10-photo Facebook album, I don’t need more. This fits into the broader “live simply” mantra I’ve embraced since moving to Costa Rica and has also made me consider not buying anything new for a year.
Throughout the 14 months that I shared a small living space with my coworkers up in the cloud forest, four different people came and went (keep in mind, it’s a house with only four rooms). Four different starry-eyed recent college grads like myself who jumped at the idea of working in a tropical country just as fast as they jumped at the opportunity to leave. There were definitely other variables that affected their inability to stick out a puny one-year contract, but perhaps the biggest was a lack of language skills. Speaking Spanish saved me. I made friends. I had something that slightly resembled a social life, which I cherished. Now I get mistaken for a local on a regular basis. #fistpumpforflattery
This took little time to realize but a lot to accept. As glamorous as living and working in a different country can be at times, it can also be psychologically corrosive. Your routine, your lifestyle, your language, your habits change. So when you write a legitimate email that outlines your emotions, challenges, triumphs, etc. you just sort of expect something thoughtful in return. But instead you get a pathetic two-sentence response about the “same old same old” and how the Eagles destroyed the Jets (“Oh my God, did you see that game?” Of course not, the NFL is about as interesting as a paralyzed snail to me right now). Fortunately, technology these days kicks total ass and allows me to Skype, text, and even call people back home whenever I want practically. This isn’t the point, however; the point is that I’ve got to start these conversations 99% of the time. At first, I struggled with this but now I just fight a bit harder for the relationships that matter.
I’m channeling my law school buddy here, but why the government plays such a significant role in everyday American life starts to make less sense when you live in Latin America. Everywhere you look, there’s a federal reason, rule, or regulation that dictates how you do things. There is something positive to be said about the do-things-your-own-way approach.
Anyone who has spent even as much as a week backpacking through Latin America can attest to the unnecessary inefficiencies (i.e. completely unmarked bus stops), cultural differences (i.e. a propensity to make up directions about the location of said unmarked bus stops), and the generally bootleg lifestyle. Multiply the frustrations they may have experienced by about 4,000 and we’re just beginning to enter my level. That being said, I am an absolute soldier when it comes to figuring shit out: bus schedules, return policies, ambiguous translations, shopping for dental surgeons, hospital procedures in a second language, etc. I can also wait like you wouldn’t believe. That’s right, wait. Once I realize I’m trapped in a Willy Wonka world of confusing process (anything banking related, for example) and there’s no escape, I accept it and dig myself in, ready for the oncoming war of attrition.
Studying in Spain unveiled the beautiful power of friendships formed abroad, but the handful of people with whom I’ve shared bits and pieces of the last two whacky years are, and forever will be, burned into my memory. There’s something about guiding a raft on a multi-day river expedition or sea kayaking in Panama with a group of young kids who have Asperger’s Syndrome that burrows into your brain and inhabit its own special corner – I’m looking at my co-instructor on this one, who’s mind was equally blown off during this experience. If you’re looking for meaningful, lasting relationships seek them somewhere outside of your comfort zone. This is why I will only propose to my future wife after traveling together.
When you live 9 degrees north of the equator, the amount of time the sun spends in the sky fluctuates very little, resulting in a predictable 6AM to 6PM schedule virtually every single day. When you live 49 degrees north of the equator, however, the amount of time the sun spends in the sky fluctuates quite a bit. Yes, it can be torture in the winter but those late summer nights where it’s still light at 9PM are magic. I’ll stomach rice and beans every day but please, give me my late summer nights!
As mentioned above, the sun rises at about 5:30 – 6AM every day in Costa Rica and the people here are notoriously early risers. I’ve gone out for absurdly early bike rides (we’re talking in the saddle by 4:30AM) and out for a casual jog is half the goddamn neighborhood. In the dark. It took awhile but once I conformed to the early morning madness, I realized that my days were more consistently satisfying/productive/fulfilling.
I pay local bills. I read the local news. I rarely eat anything but local food. All of which you might do studying abroad or traveling, but the big difference is that I don’t necessarily know for how long it will last. The foreign exchange program doesn’t finish at the end of this semester; the return flight date isn’t clearly stamped on any ticket. Aligning the pace of my day with that of everyone around me has created a unique sense of belonging and furthermore, a true understanding of how life works here as opposed to how studying or traveling works here.
I can’t imagine doing this without it. And that’s…all I have to say…about that.