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The sun radiates on the cresting blue and white water of the Pacific as Capuchin monkeys scamper through trees meters away from the water, jumping down close to rest of us, attempting to spy food in our belongings. During the afternoon or evening, the atmosphere exhales and vast expanses of rain forest and cloud forest are rejuvenated by a mild drizzle to a heavy thunder storm. This is the green, exotic Costa Rica most people see. For a week, it was my Costa Rica, too. From the traffic of San José to the waterfalls and hot springs near Arenal, to the zip line tour in Monteverde to the jungle-framed beaches of Manuel Antonio, our bus saw it all.
Then things started to change.
One week from our initial arrival, our bus pulled up at a park in Ciudad Colón, a suburb of San José. Masses of locals swarmed under the overhang, watching the masses of white (and blotchy red) teenagers stare back at them with fear and excitement. The first full Thursday in Costa Rica, the family stay was about to begin.
The night before, my teacher had come to the hotel room I was sharing with two other girls and told me I would be staying with a new family, as the original family was in mourning for a dead relative. Though I hadn’t had any contact with the original five people, at the very least I had their names, ages, relation to my host sister, and their occupations. Now all I had was a half a sheet of white paper with my name and the words “Mother/Daughter: 14 years” inscribed on it in green pen. I didn’t even get their names.
As the coordinator read our names off a list, I feel more nervous than I’ve ever had before. I’m usually pretty confident in my Spanish, and I’ve been looking forward to the family stay all year. Our trip had even changed from Mexico to Costa Rica, but I didn’t care. All that really mattered was the family stay. But with a family that only speaks Spanish? I’m not sure I can handle the challenge.
The coordinator calls my name, and then a family name. The woman and girl who have been standing right next to me the whole time step forward. We awkwardly kiss each other on the cheek and head over to a taxi. My host sister, who I later find out is named Karina, or better known as Kari, begins to break the ice, and we chat timidly in Spanish. We arrive on a corner next to a pulperia, or a small convenience store. We get out, and Kari opens a green gate next to the store. A carry my suitcase up some precarious stairs and wait for my host mother to open the door.
I’ve never lived in an apartment before. Also, typical of Costa Rican homes, there isn’t air conditioning or hot water. I live in a two-story house with a fully-furnished basement. This is nothing like I’m used, too. A rooster outside my room crows every to seconds, even after dark. To make matters worse, within hours I find out another disaster has struck: my purse fell out of my backpack on the bus. I have no money and no way to get in touch with my parents. When the mom puts a burrito with fresh lettuce and tomato in front of me for dinner, I have to choke it down, only to be polite. I feel like I’m going to be sick.
The next morning I try calling everyone I can in the country. I call my teacher, the teacher on-call, my teacher’s emergency contact, the coordinator. I never once reach a human voice. Then I go to school with Kari.
Her friends stare at my pale skin, light hair, and blue eyes, and many of them play with my hair while we wait for the various classes to start. I large plus to school is I had one of the other students from my group in every class. It’s comforting to talk to someone who speaks fluent English, although the other student’s host mother and brother both speak very good English as well.
Every Friday is a half-day, so Kari, a friend, and I all go home early for lunch. We watch Disney Channel and eat Chicken Noodle Soup, although I still feel like an intruder. Then things start to look up. After her friend goes home, Kari and I play card games for over and hour, chatting all the way. I even teach her how to correctly say “talk to the hand”. Kari is in her first year of English, and we spend a lot of time trading vocabulary. We go to a musical school concert where two of her cousins play, one of which is almost an exact replica of my little sister. For the remainder of the week, Kari and I hang out at the mall, go to school, watch Disney Channel movies, play videogames, meet family, and talk in both English and Spanish. On Sunday, I even go to Temple with them, a very different experience for me, since we’re members of different Christian groups.
I have tears in my eyes as my family drops me off at the bus at the end of the week. One of the best weeks of my life is coming to an end. All of the students trade stories about our family stays, trying to top each other with stories of best and worst experiences. With a promise to write and a gift bag in my hand, I get on the bus to return to the airport and later the continuous motion of the United States.
If you travel to Costa Rica, you’ll often hear the locals say “pura vida”. These two Spanish words are used to mean everything, from everything’s okay to have a nice day. It essentially means life is good. Costa Ricans are almost always happy and nice, inviting at almost every moment of the day. The country is tranquil. I have the little statue of a house and oxcart my host mother and sister gave me right next to my bed, and try to let it remind me to live every day in the same manner as the Costa Ricans: smile, breathe, and be calm and friendly. So to everyone: ¡Pura Vida!