Through the transit from homestay to airport, in between plane transfers, customs clearances and layover waits, all that was on my mind were the palpable tokens of Costa Rica. The majestic ocean amid the bluest skies. The lush palm fronds reaching out to the shore as if desiring to touch the water. The sound of waves enveloping every other sound. The calm chirping of birds in their natural habitat. The sweeping landscapes that makes you grateful to be alive..
As I held on to the images in my mind, fearing that I will forget them once I start thinking about my reality back home in Chicago, I realize that there is no need to worry about forgetting Costa Rica– it’s just impossible; memorable it surely is. Even as I write this in my room in Chicago, thinking about the past two weeks is a sensory experience, the memories as clear as that blue sky, the details crisp as that cool summer ocean.
There are many pictures, activities and people that I’ve encountered which I will never forget, but I think what’s also important is to remember lessons I gathered from the trip. There are plenty of these takeaways, but here are a few:
1. Respect for the environment. One will recognize on a trip that Costa Ricans are cognizant of their ecological footprint, perhaps more than any other people I’ve ever encountered. There are recycle bins with distinct categories (aluminum, glass, plastic, organic/biodegradable) set up everywhere. In various hotels and lodges they have notes near the sink advising guests to take only as much as you need. Light switches are accompanied by a suggestion to turn off lights during the day when the sun is bright. They are very mindful of the environment, and these actions also help them stay within their budget for utilities.
2. Family and camaraderie are priorities. In my homestay, my host mom is a grandma and in her house lives her husband, children (3 grown adults in their 30-40s) and twp grandchildren. Her children have houses of their own nearby, but they make sure to make time to visit often if not everyday. Her grown kids visits in the morning to eat breakfast at home. Outside of the family, Costa Ricans treat good friends like family. Even their greeting is intimate; a kiss on the right cheek; not a cheek-to-cheek peck, but a quick lip kiss on another’s cheek.
3. More appreciation for blessings. What I came to realize in my visit in Costa Rica is that people in developing countries have a different relationship to material things compared to those in developed countries, as I’ve seen in my childhood in Manila and years growing up in the States. In developing countries, they see material things as a status symbol because they are usually harder to get– buying the latest phone or digital camera usually takes a family weeks or even months, to save up for. In the U.S., the material things mentioned are less of a status symbol than the amount of these things one can buy. Kids in the U.S. try to best each other by comparing the number of Apple gadgets they have, while in developing nations, one would be happy with one iPhone, one which the family probably saved up for and will share.
4. Pride in their identity and work. Costa Ricans are very welcoming. One will find that they are easy to talk to, polite and always positive, from the taxi driver to restaurant server. I don’t think I encountered anyone who was grumpy or bitter about their work or situation. They will acknowledge the difficulty of living in Costa Rica in today’s time since they are too, affected by the economic situation affecting many countries around the world. Yet they will talk to you with smiles on their faces, always looking toward the positive, a strong belief in hard work, and return your thank yous with a full and clear “con mucho gusto,” which means “with pleasure.”
5. Deliberate and optimistic living. When you go to Costa Rica, you will notice everyone saying “Pura Vida,” which is a catch-all phrase with several definitions: everything is great, have a nice day, etc. They say it at the beginning and end of conversations, when they’re wishing someone a good day, when they have great news to share, among others. In Costa Rica, people take time to eat, chat with friends they bump into, or take the 30 min (or more) walk back home. At my host family, they start they day early, waking up before 6 am, and ending the day earlier, sleeping around 10 pm. It felt natural for me to follow their routine, and I think this suits me better than the 5 am – 1 am lifestyle of urban America.
6. The world is big. Living in the States makes you tend to plan your life as if you’ll be in the same place forever. Get promoted in X number of years, move to this part of the country, send kids in X school. We have this notion that people live like the way we do, and even if we are on top of the news and know what other people live differently, we just don’t know how different until we live in their shoes. It is amazing what traveling can do to us, introducing us to how people in other parts of the world live, expanding our perspective. It invites you to ask yourself if you can live in other parts of the world.
7. The world is small.
When I was at Stanford, upon my amazement at our mutual connections, a classmate of mine told me that the world is indeed small. “You will realize that only a very small population of the world has the means to travel and get a good education, and we’re all bound to run in the same circles.” We had people from all over the world in Costa Rica and I didn’t run into anyone I knew (the closest commonality was a girl who grew up in Chicago), but I got the sense that I will probably run into them in the future, in another part of the world.
8. Respect for other people and cultures. Costa Rica reminded me that diversity is fascinating, and stories, cultures and traditions different from your the majority is just as valid. In the States, there is emphasis on being the same, and American kids who grew up together who know the same slang and have the same lifestyle (work, party, party some more), and I tend to downplay that I am from some place different. In Costa Rica, I am fascinated by people who have personal stories to tell, even if these are stories from every day living. My host mom wakes up very early everyday to make breakfast for the family, works around the house, cooks lunch, and welcomes family members who arrive home from school and work. She requires that the family eat lunch all together during dinner time, bakes cake for the weekly prayer meetings (there is a prayer leader and everyone responds in unison) that they host at the house. Her every day story won’t make the front pages of lifestyle sections, but I find it interesting because it illustrates the story of a woman whose concern in life is to take care of her family, a priority that is far different from the life of many working women in the States.
9. Openness is about vulnerability and discovery. My sister and I met some wonderful people in Costa Rica, and we attribute it to our philosophy before the beginning of the trip: to be open to whatever comes next. Sometimes it’s hard to be open to others, especially as women traveling alone, but as long as you’re cautious and build genuine relationships with others, things should turn out fine. We engaged many people in conversations, not just our fellow tourists. We saw Costa Rica in the eyes of the locals, from the hotel employees to our cab drivers to our host family. It was a unique experience in that we went out of our way to step beyond our barriers are tourists and communicate with others and listen to their stories about their lives and country.