One of the first things I notice about my program in Costa Rica, is that our days start very early. We regularly have to get up at 6am in order to get ready, eat breakfast, and meet our group on time. This actually is not extremely difficult considering; 1) Costa Rica is two hours behind Eastern Standard Time, 2) the sun rises and sets very early, and 3) we are almost always woken up early by the cacophonous greetings of cicadas, howler monkeys and countless other creatures. Our first activity as a group is a tour of the campus that is housing us for the majority of the month. We drive around and see research plots on farms, cattle and other farm animals, aquaponic systems, banana trees, and biodigesters. There is so much to see.
EARTH university (Universidad Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) is a sustainable agricultural school surrounded by thousands of acres of tropical forest. For a country so small, Costa Rica is home to about 5% of the world’s biodiversity. The country is also the safest in Latin America, a fact that is continually mentioned by the proud locals. Our group gets along really well, which is encouraging especially because there are 20 of us. We all come from different areas of study and different years at the university. Most of us did not know anyone from before the program. But we get close quickly and stick together at the beginning.
One night we are partnered with EARTH students to help them practice their English with native speakers. Most of the students at EARTH are not from Costa Rica. There are many from different parts of Africa and Latin America. The African students had to learn English before beginning their classes. We are all impressed by this, and some of us try to practice our Spanish with the other students. A couple students in my group teach me how to play a card game called Burro Nervioso or Nervous Donkey. It’s fun and we stay up late playing it while other students go out dancing.
After a few days at EARTH, our group feels more confident to branch out at mealtimes and reach out to local students. There seems to be a great interest in the females of our group. Most of us are particularly careful around male students, because friendliness can be mistaken as flirtatiousness and some of the local male students seem overly eager to get to know us. This may have something to do with the extremely small student body and I guess new kids always carry a certain appeal.
Anyway, our field trips on the program are really cool. We get to travel all over the country. We see banana and pineapple research plots at Biotech, a company that researches different plant diseases. After the visit, we are each given our own pineapples. People eat the fruit until their mouths sting too bad to keep eating.
We also visit the oldest hydroelectric dam in Costa Rica.
On Friday as a surprise, our program advisor arranges for a yoga instructor to come to the school from San Jose to give us a private session. A couple of the EARTH students join in and we do yoga under the stars. It’s really relaxing, though there are moments when we break down into collective giggles as the instructor demonstrates a ridiculous and challenging position. We are getting along with the students here and, especially since there are only about 400 of them, many of them are becoming familiar to me even if we don’t often speak to each other.
In the middle of our trip, we take a tour of an animal rescue center. The place is largely supported by unpaid volunteers who take care of the animals. There are snakes, sloths, birds, monkeys, and big cats. The center aims to release all the animals back into the wild, and is apparently having increasing success as they improve their practices and increase their knowledge. The animals are so cute, and as we walk through the sanctuary we can see monkeys climbing and cuddling on volunteers. We see a bunch of sloths and everyone in our group freaks out, because they are adorable.
Though our program is right at the start of the country’s rainy season, the weather has been pretty nice this whole trip. Of course, the day of our first trip to the beach, it storms like crazy. We take a 3 hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo, a cute touristy town on the coast, to swim. It’s a 15 minute walk from the parking lot to the beach. As it begins to rain, the waves get bigger and bigger. I was a little scared but everyone else seems fine and swims for much longer. We run back to the bus in the rain and are soaked through.
Even though we were cold and wet, it was really only miserable for a few moments. After a while, we warmed up and were all laughing as a group about the ridiculous situation. Luckily, the next week we have a more successful beach day. We climb along rocks to find hidden shores, we play games, and really get to know each other. I know I will miss everyone in my program as well as the beauty and culture of Costa Rica. As a local tica would say, Pura vida, mae!!!