Kyoko Okano

My host family, Doña Argelis (Mamá Tica, middle) and Don Elías

At 5:50am, my alarm clock rang. I got up immediately and checked the weather. Although San José is known as a rainy city (there are only two seasons in San José: rainy season and less rainy season!), commonly it is not raining in the morning. I went jogging, through a route that I carefully chose, to avoid a highway. Still, there were already many cars running at 6 o’clock in the morning. Some seniors took a walk every morning, so seeing the same faces and greeting each other, “Buenos Dias!” was a regular habit. When I returned home, I took a shower, brewed café, and started reading a Spanish textbook or vocabulary cards, while my Mamá Tica (host mother) woke up and said “Buenos Dias!” with a smile. She sometimes went to the “Panadería (bakery)” to buy freshly baked bread, or sometimes cooked “gallo pinto (rice and beans)” for breakfast. I enjoyed having them with fruit and eggs, with Mamá. I asked her some questions about Ticos (Costa Ricans) and their life, and she asked me of life in Japan or Alaska.  

This was my typical morning or a preferable morning in Costa Rica. Things were not that smooth all the time, though. It was not unusual that the lights blacked out, or the shower was not even warm. Sometimes I needed to bring up issues of the house, such as mold on the wall in my room, or conflicts with one of the students in the house (I had 5 ticos and 1 hondureña at home). But that’s OK. I learned that’s OK, “Tranquilo and Pura Vida!”

I joined the UAF Honors Program in fall 2010 choosing to graduate with an Honors Thesis Scholar. But I found out that study abroad credits would be certified as honor’s credits. It was also when I enjoyed learning Spanish for three semesters and was about to take the last class of grammar. I got an A+ for all three classes, but was afraid of losing my knowledge of Spanish once the class ended. I stopped by at the Office of International Program and grabbed pamphlets on study abroad programs. The drawback was to delay my graduation and to leave Biology, my major, for a semester. I also knew that a three month period of studying abroad does not improve Spanish dramatically, since I am originally from Japan and have experience learning English as a second language. I was wondering if Study Abroad was worth those disadvantages in exchange for a graduation with University Honors Scholar and taking Spanish classes. Then, I found a program in Costa Rica that was known as the pioneer of ecotourism and nature conservations. I would be able to take Spanish classes as well as tropical ecology in English, which would fulfill my minor credits in Natural Resources Management. This is it! I signed up for the program. In September, I took a flight to San José, Costa Rica, and I spent fall 2011 there.
The highest mountain in Costa Rica, Chirripó (12,532ft)

Before I went, my image of Costa Rica was beautiful beaches and rainforests with tourists from all over the world. Costa Rica abolished the army in 1948 and instead, invested its taxes in the improvement of education and health care. They also made an effort to conserve nature and started ecotourism. Many foreigners, especially Americans and Canadians after their retirement, are encouraged to move to Costa Rica. Because of the image and information that I had, I thought Costa Rica as a semi-advanced country. Yes, it was a relatively safe and advanced country, compared to its neighboring countries in Central America. The National Parks I visited during my stay, such as Tortugero, Cahuita, Chirripó and Santa Rosa, were absolutely gorgeous. Clear oceans and well-maintained parks relaxed me. Knowledgeable guides helped me understand nature, histories and cultures in Costa Rica. However, as my program director mentioned, there was a double standard. What Costa Rica showed us foreigners was just a bright part. During the three months of my stay, at least two of my classmates were robbed. My Mamá Tica warned me that there were robberies more in our neighborhood. The windows and doors as well as around the houses (almost all houses I noticed in Costa Rica) were protected by bars. I had a chance to visit an orphanage where over 300 children lived in San José. Most of their mothers were prostitutes and the children were separated from the mothers so that no bad influence would fall on the children. I also met a man in his 50s who could not read and write Spanish. He said that he was from the countryside and did not have time to learn.

The last day of “El Club de Conversación”

Universidad Veritas has over 100 students from foreign countries, particularly the United States. There were 9 levels of Spanish classes and more cultural and academic classes offered in Spanish. Up to 15 students were in a class. The classes consisted of 4 weeks, and I could take three classes during the three month period. My first class was an intermediate conversational class, but all of the four classmates already spoke advanced level Spanish. Although I understood grammar, I realized that I could not speak Spanish because I had not been trained for listening and speaking. The content of the class was great; the instructor brought up topics and issues not only in Costa Rica and United States, but also in the world. Assignments did not include compositions but rather research for class debates, interviews and preparation for presentations. The vocabulary that I learned in the class was not only needed for the exams, but also useful for a daily life. I had been frustrated by not being able to express what I wanted to explain. But thanks to the instructor and classmates, I could get through a month and was ready for talking more. Because of the first awesome class, the second and third classes were rather disappointing. Unlike the previous class, the classmates spoke English all the time, although it was prohibited. I talked to the instructors and even the program director, but the situation did not improve. The class contents were also disappointing. They focused on more grammar rather than conversations, which I already learned at UAF and reviewed in the previous class. I did not hang out with the classmates and tried to find friends that were willing to speak only Spanish.

I joined a conversation club in Veritas. The club members consisted of students who were seeking a chance to speak Spanish. The levels of the students varied. When I spoke to students at a basic level, I could speak with less tension, and when I spoke to advanced level students, I could learn from them. The instructor sometimes arranged a game when there were nearly 10 students, but let us keep talking when the number of students was fewer than 5. A couple of times we went out for a café or had local students who wanted to learn English.

I could take one of the elective classes offered in English. I wanted not to hear and speak English, but I could not resist the temptation of taking Tropical ecology, not only because it would cover my minor credits but also because it was unique to Costa Rica. The concept of ecology at the beginning of the class was very basic, but the details about such species as banana, cacao and mangrove were new to me. The class held two field trips to different ecosystems: rainforests and dry forests. At a biological station in a rainforest, a guide led us to see many unique species of Costa Rica such as toucans and frogs. When we went to a dry forest, we walked 13km (8miles) to get to a beautiful beach. I enjoyed the day hikes and night hikes there, learning the similarities and differences of two ecosystems. The class covered not only natural ecology, but also anthropologic impacts on the environment, such as fragmentation of forests, pollution and climate change.

Solano Family, at a garden of their weekend home

During my stay, I became friends with a wonderful family, aside from my host family. The Solano family lived in different locations in San Jose, but liked to gather on many occasions such as birthdays and vacations. I met them while I was visiting Parque Nacional Tortugero. I was traveling alone, and they came as a family event. Rocío, the youngest sister of the family sat next to me on a bus and a boat, and we had a chance to talk. After the trip, I casually sent her an email to thank her and her family for their kindness during the trip. Then she invited me for a family party. On the way to her sister’s home where the party took place, she drove through a poor neighborhood and an extremely rich area, mentioning, “I wanted you to see different parts of San José.” The family seemed to be relatively high class; all of her siblings (five including her) went to Universidad Costa Rica, the most superb university in Costa Rica. The home was located in a calm suburb of San José. Everybody welcomed me. I had already met some of them, but not all. The father of the family was particularly glad to meet me, because he used to work for a Japanese company and had visited Japan. I also enjoyed talking with him and hearing about his trip to Japan. Talking about Japan and seeing a friendly family reminded me of my family in Japan. I realized that I missed them; it’s been four years since I moved to Alaska and away from my family. I appreciated their warm friendship, as well as showing me what a family should be like. When I left, they said, “This is your home, you have a home in Costa Rica!”

Now I have returned to Fairbanks and started a new semester. My life goes on as if nothing happened. I improved Spanish a little, but three months was too short to become trilingual. I obtained good friends and families, but although I can contact them by email or Facebook, I don’t know when I can see them again. So, what’s good about study abroad? What’s the difference from just travelling? You will never know until you go!

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